EPA Puts More Environment Online

Several new online tools developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are now available to provide the public with a variety of environmental information collected by the agency. The tools provide access to information about enforcement actions against polluters in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and across the nation, plus information about health risks from toxic chemicals and the ongoing oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. These online information access tools follow the recent release of the EPA's Open Government Plan, which makes public access to information a priority for the agency.

Clean Water Act

The EPA recently launched a new set of online tools, data, and interactive maps containing information on violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The web tools are part of EPA's Clean Water Act Action Plan. The agency has made enforcement of water quality laws a priority and in 2009 invited public participation on the creation of the action plan. In response to public comments, the EPA made data use a key feature of the plan.

According to the head of EPA's enforcement office, Cynthia Giles, "Making this information more accessible and understandable empowers millions of people to press for better compliance and enforcement in their communities."

The new web page provides interactive information from EPA's 2008 Annual Noncompliance Report, which pertains to about 40,000 permitted Clean Water Act polluters across the country. The site includes information on how many permits have been issued, how frequently sampling data is reviewed to determine if violations occurred, the frequency of violations, and the frequency that formal enforcement was taken in 2008. The information on the website is also available in HTML format, as a PDF document, and as a data table.

Despite the website's numerous useful features, a significant amount of information remains missing. Many states control their own water quality programs, and the new website cautions users that "states are not required to enter the data in the federal data systems." The agency therefore estimates how much information for a particular state is available through the web page. Some states do not even provide information to the EPA database on serious violations.

Summary data for each state's enforcement actions are only available for 2008 and for non-major permittees. The new website also does not count large major facilities, general permits, or wet weather permits. Detailed information, information from additional years, and reports from larger facilities are available on EPA's Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database website.

Chesapeake Bay

Similar to the Clean Water Act Annual Noncompliance Report, EPA recently launched an online map that shows the locations of federal air and water enforcement actions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and airshed.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stated in a press release, "Transparency and accountability are essential to the work we're doing to clean up the Chesapeake and restore these treasured waters. The community now has new tools it needs to see where EPA is taking action to improve water quality and protect the bay."

The interactive map provides information on EPA enforcement actions and cases since 2009 under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as Superfund).

Again, similar to the Clean Water Act Annual Noncompliance Report, some data from state governments are not available. The map does not show environmental enforcement actions taken by state or local environmental agencies.

Clicking on the flag for a specific facility on the map will open the enforcement case report for that facility. From this page, a user can click to retrieve more detailed facility data. In some cases, a settlement has been reached, and the details are available via links on the website.

EPA developed a draft Chesapeake Bay Compliance and Enforcement Strategy following a May 12, 2009, executive order from President Obama. The draft strategy seeks to target the greatest sources of pollution impairing the bay and its tributaries. The draft strategy is a multi-state plan for addressing violations of federal environmental laws and will be finalized in May as part of the evaluation of progress in meeting the goals of Obama’s Chesapeake Bay Executive Order.

Both the Clean Water Act Annual Noncompliance Report website and the Chesapeake Bay enforcement map draw their compliance information from EPA's ECHO database. ECHO contains a large amount of enforcement and compliance data, but navigating and understanding the significance of the data in ECHO remain challenges.

For example, one facility found in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is the Oxford Waste Water Treatment Plant in Oxford, MD. According to the new online map, this water treatment plant exceeded its effluent permit 27 times over a three-year period. Clicking on the facility's flag on the map of Maryland produces a detailed report from the ECHO database. However, it is still far from intuitive to identify from the ECHO report what the exceedances were and what the consequences were – both for the facility in terms of fines or changes to operations and to the environment in terms of impacts to water quality or damage to habitat.

The public is well served by online tools that not only provide useful statistics, but also empower citizens by placing the information into a useful context. If a facility has violated federal law repeatedly, what have been the consequences? Is the facility changing its operations to be more in compliance? Has there been any ecological damage, and if so, what mitigation has occurred? These are basic questions of accountability, and the data must help state and federal regulators and the public answer these questions and hold polluters accountable. The two new online tools take strong steps in this direction, but more could be done with the ECHO database to make it more effective. A more versatile search feature and expanded downloading capabilities would help many users. All users would benefit from having the data placed into meaningful context.

Oil Spill and Toxics Data

Part of the agency's ongoing response to the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been to create a web page through which users can learn about EPA's response and the impacts on the region's air and water quality. Users of the new page can see the agency's plan for sampling and testing air, water, and sediment quality in the Gulf and track air quality monitoring data in real time.

One other recent addition to EPA's online data array is the release of "ToxRefDB," which allows the public to search and download thousands of toxicity testing results on hundreds of chemicals. Users may search by a chemical's name or identification number. The detailed information includes a diagram of the chemical and its basic characteristics and links to relevant animal studies on the health threats of the chemical. The database contains pesticide registration toxicity data that used to be stored as hard-copy and scanned documents.

The new online tools continue a trend started early in 2009 with the release of the EPA's MyEnvironment program. The MyEnvironment tool allows the public to enter a place name or zip code and receive a diverse amount of environmental information linked to that geographic region. MyEnvironment incorporates geographic information with local air and water quality data, cancer risk estimates, pollution reports from local facilities, and other environmental data.

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