Environmental Information:

EPA Could Better Address Concerns About Disseminating Sensitive Business Information

RCED-99-156: Published: Jun 25, 1999. Publicly Released: Jun 25, 1999.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO: (1) provided information on the usefulness of publicly available environmental information to competitive intelligence professionals; and (2) assessed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) efforts to address industries' concerns about providing the public with access to sensitive business information.

GAO noted that: (1) competitive intelligence professionals, industry representatives, and environmental officials expressed a range of views on the usefulness of publicly available environmental information provided by businesses; (2) for example, industry representatives told GAO that environmental information reported by businesses--such as air and water permits or materials accounting information--often contains valuable details about their operations; (3) in contrast, most intelligence professionals said that, while such information is useful for some of their purposes, it is rarely sufficient for reliable analyses when used alone; (4) New Jersey and Massachusetts environmental officials also questioned the value of this information for competitive intelligence purposes and noted that businesses made very few claims of confidentiality in their states when submitting even the controversial materials accounting information; (5) despite the wide range of views on the value of environmental information for competitive intelligence purposes, competitive intelligence professionals generally agreed that multiple types and sources of information are needed to develop comprehensive and reliable analyses of competitors' business operations; (6) industry officials also acknowledged that they could do a better job in protecting their sensitive business information while still complying with reporting requirements; (7) EPA has made a number of efforts to address industries' concerns about the collection and the dissemination of sensitive business information; (8) for example, during EPA's recent consideration of materials accounting reporting, the agency made several attempts to better understand and address industries' concerns; (9) however, many of the industry officials that GAO contacted continue to have concerns about EPA's lack of consistent policies and practices for collecting and disseminating sensitive business information; (10) in addition, GAO, industry trade groups, and most recently EPA itself, have raised concerns about the absence of consistent high-level agency attention to information management activities; (11) in response to these concerns, EPA will soon consolidate many of these activities in a new Information Office; and (12) however, it remains unclear how the new office will address issues related to collecting and disseminating sensitive business information.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA completed several actions to address the issues involved in this recommendation. It established an Information Sensitivity Workgroup to reexamine the agency's criteria for determining the sensitivity of information. Accordingly, the workgroup developed a draft Confidential Information Compendium, designed to enhance staff awareness of the various types of confidential information and their responsibility for protecting it. EPA also created the Central Data Exchange (CDX) to enable electronic submittal and exchange of environmental information between EPA, states, Indian Tribes, local governments, and regulated entities. Consistent with GAO's recommendation, OEI is actively investigating how to best include electronic reporting of confidential business information in CDX.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the long-standing concerns about the collection and dissemination of sensitive business information are addressed in a consistent, comprehensive manner, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Program Manager of the new Information Office to develop an action plan that details how the office will address issues surrounding sensitive business information. A central feature of this plan should address how EPA will balance its need to collect and disseminate potentially sensitive business information with industries' concerns about such activities. To ensure that EPA fully considers the concerns of all interested parties, this action plan should be developed with extensive and representative involvement by stakeholders.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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