EPA Urged to Speed Up Data Releases

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, March 7, 2002 (ENS) - The White House has notified environmental officials that they must do a better job of notifying the public in a timely manner about industrial releases of toxic chemicals. In a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the administration told the agency to speed up its annual reports on such releases.


The Toxic Release Inventory informs citizens about pollutants emitted by all kinds of facilities, such as this refinery. (Photo courtesy the North Atlantic Company)
The letter from the White House Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs asked the EPA to enhance its Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), an annual measure of chemical releases by facilities.

"TRI data is widely used by communities and companies throughout the country, and has been credited with stimulating, through voluntary actions, a significant reduction in pollution from industrial facilities," said Information and Regulatory Affairs administrator John Graham. "The Administration is committed to increasing the utility of this information."

TRI data is collected under authority of Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986. Additional reporting requirements were included in the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990.

Under the TRI program, covered facilities are required to report annually on their release of more than 600 listed toxic chemicals. The reports are broken down by environmental media, such as air, land and water, and waste management activities such as treatment and recycling.

These reports are widely used by government agencies, academic researchers, environmental organizations and members of the public to track the release of toxic chemicals into the environment and their communities.


Mining operations accounted for 48 percent of the toxic emissions reported in the EPA's 1998 Toxic Release Inventory. (Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management)
"As you know, environmental information plays an essential role in advancing EPA's objectives of protecting public health and the environment," wrote Graham in the letter to the EPA. "However, there has been a considerable lag in recent years in the public release of this data. For example, we understand EPA plans to release the TRI data for 2000 this spring - almost a year after it was received and more than a year after the end of the reporting year."

For calendar year 1999, the most recent year for which data are currently available, more than 22,000 facilities filed 84,000 chemical release reports.

The OMB suggested several ways in which the EPA might improve the release and dissemination of TRI data, including replacing most paper reporting of toxic releases with electronic reporting.

"The increased use of electronic reporting reduces the quality control burden on the agency and should allow quicker processing of the data for the public's benefit," Graham explained.

This task should be made easier by a new Web portal that the EPA created in December 2001 for all environmental data entering the agency, including TRI reports. The Central Data Exchange (CDX) offers companies, states and other entities that provide data to the EPA a faster, easier and a more secure reporting option.

The portal includes built in data quality checks, web forms, standard file formats and a common approach to reporting data across different environmental programs such as TRI, the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule and the Air Emissions Inventory.

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Electric power plants accounted for about 15 percent of the toxic releases reported to the EPA in 1998. (Photo by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Grant Extension)
Use of electronic reporting could help reduce the EPA's burden of cross checking TRI reports to identify potential errors. The EPA's practice of comparing all TRI data with reports from previous years slows the agency's processing time, and hampers timely public release of the information, the OMB noted.

"In conducting this analysis, EPA is assuming some of the quality assurance burden that properly rests with the respondent," wrote Graham. "Respondents should be responsible for the quality of the reported data."

The OMB also encouraged the EPA to assign a common identification number to each facility, so performance data could be presented for specific facilities. Community organizations have supported this concept in the past.

"The adoption of a single facility identification number for reporting facilities has long been recognized as an important step in making data readily available to regulators and the public," Graham wrote. "This effort will augment the practical utility of the data by making it easier for the agency, other governmental entities and the public to link data reported by a facility in different contexts (e.g., TRI data and water discharge data)."

The OMB's request came in the form of a so called prompt letter, a tool introduced by the Bush Administration. While not forcing agency action, prompt letters alert agencies to issues that OMB considers worthy of priority status. The OMB letter, dated March 4, asked the EPA to respond within 60 days.