Environmental Information:

Agencywide Policies and Procedures Are Needed for EPA's Information Dissemination

RCED-98-245: Published: Sep 24, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 1998.

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Pursuant to a legislative mandate, GAO determined the status of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) efforts to: (1) provide communities with risk information on toxic chemical releases in their areas; (2) make the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act's (EPCRA) chemical inventory information publicly accessible; and (3) develop policies, procedures, and standards for disseminating environmental information to the public.

GAO noted that: (1) EPA has three projects under way that would provide additional data to communities on releases of toxic chemicals from nearby manufacturing facilities; (2) although these projects are not being designed to comprehensively define an individual community's risks, collectively, they would substantially expand the information available to communities; (3) in addition to the Toxic Release Inventory's (TRI) quantities of chemical releases, this information is to include data on individual facilities' history of compliance with environmental laws, the relative toxicity of chemical releases, the dispersion of the releases to surrounding areas, and the estimated concentrations of the chemicals in the outdoor air from sources not covered by the TRI; (4) however, each of these initiatives has a different scope and timeframe for completion, and it could be several years before the initiatives' full promise would be realized; (5) although the data from the chemical inventory that is reported under section 312 of the EPCRA are potentially useful for such purposes as a citizen's finding out what chemicals are used at a nearby facility, public use has been limited; (6) much of the information has not been computerized to provide easy access and when it has, it is not available in regional or national databases that permit comparisons among industries or geographical areas; (7) EPA estimates that 868,500 facilities provide local emergency planning committees, fire departments, and the states in which they are located with data on thousands of hazardous chemicals; (8) in recent years, EPA has taken some steps to assist local and state efforts to computerize the data, and two EPA regions have initiated efforts to consolidate computerized state databases; (9) while EPA believes that such efforts might prove to be worthwhile, it has not provided funding for nor assessed the potential benefits and costs of developing a national computerized database for this information; (10) EPA has not developed policies, procedures, and standards to govern key aspects of its projects to disseminate information, such as the Sector Facility Indexing Project; (11) EPA also has not developed standards to assess the data's accuracy and mechanisms to determine and correct errors; and (12) while EPA has several initiatives under way to improve its data management practices, it has no specific plans to provide its program offices with guidance for designing, developing, and implementing their information dissemination projects.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has initiated several projects aimed at developing and implementing the policies and procedures GAO recommended. Collectively they address GAO's concerns about providing a common process for developing data systems and disseminating data, providing for stakeholder involvement in the data systems, and ensuring that the data is accurate and provided in a format that meets the needs of major stakeholders and the public. One of the key projects is the Information Products Bulletin that is intended to help ensure that EPA's information products are accurate and useful, clearly characterize the data incorporated in the products, and provide detailed information on opportunities for stakeholder and public involvement in developing information products.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that EPA provides the public with data that are accurate, complete, and relevant to its needs, the Administrator, EPA, should supplement the agency's existing policies on information resources management by developing agencywide policies and procedures that specify guidance and standards for program offices involved in designing, developing, and implementing information dissemination projects. Such guidance and standards should address obtaining stakeholders' involvement in the projects' design and development, testing for and correcting errors in the data, and communicating contextual information on the data's uses and limitations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA developed new software (Tier2Submit) that states can use to facilitate the electronic submission of EPCRA section 312 data. Having a common format for states should ease the preparation of reports by industry as well as the management and sharing of data by states and locals.

    Recommendation: Given the potential usefulness of EPCRA section 312 data to the public, the Administrator, EPA, should evaluate options to make the data more accessible and implement the most cost-effective option that provides availability on a regional and national basis. In implementing the project, EPA should use the policies and standards for dissemination projects that GAO has recommended.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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