EPA releases toxics data early in spirit of transparency

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In response to citizen requests, the Environmental Protection Agency posted its preliminary 2009 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data at the end of July, only weeks after the July 1 reporting deadline for U.S. plants to detail their chemical emissions.

The annual data, which is closely analyzed by many community groups, appeared on the EPA’s website nearly a full month earlier than the same release last year. Previously, the EPA had taken up to 12 months before publishing the annual data, according to Brian Turnbaugh, a policy analyst at the open government advocacy group OMB Watch.

“When the information is that old, it’s obviously not as useful to a community that is concerned about what is currently happening to the air and the water in their community,” Turnbaugh said. “[The EPA is] moving in a really good direction.”

The TRI is generally acknowledged to be one of the best tools communities and groups have to monitor toxic chemical releases by local plants. “The program works best at the local level,” Turnbaugh said, “because that’s where the pollution is impacting people the most.”

EPA decided to publish the preliminary 2009 data sooner after receiving requests from groups that regularly use TRI data, according to Rebecca Moser, acting director of the EPA’s TRI program. Speedier publication is possible because the agency makes an online program available to all companies to self-report their release data, and it has built-in data checks to help ensure accuracy. For example, the online program provides drop-down menus that standardize plant and company names. It can also pre-load some information for specific sites, which expedites the process.

The EPA also has a new open-government initiative in response to the Obama administration’s call for more transparency.

“There is an open government theme across the EPA,” Moser said. “We certainly want to be as open as possible.”

This year’s TRI publication is the earliest in the program’s history. It is also the first time the EPA made the preliminary data available in two of its online analysis tools: TRI Explorer and Envirofacts. The 2009 data is approximately 80 percent complete, and the EPA expects to make updates available in August and September.

The EPA is encouraging users to fill out a comment box at the TRI site about ways the agency can improve the available analysis tools, as well as interesting trends or anomalies in the data, Moser said.

About the data:

What: Toxic Release Inventory detailing U.S. plants’ release and waste management of about 650 chemicals. Facilities report releases yearly. The amounts are often estimated, not measured, and only reported if above a certain threshold. The 2009 data is preliminary because not all facilities have reported, or their reports been processed.

Where: Environmental Protection Agency website

Availability: Raw data for preliminary 2009 TRI now posted online. Raw files for 1987 – 2008 are also online.

Format: ASCII text that is delimited by TABs.

Usability: EPA offers online tools to help users analyze TRI data: EnviroFacts and TRI Explorer.

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