A new Internet-based information-sharing network will let state, local and federal environmental officials get real-time access to air and water pollution data that now will be reported electronically.
Instead of waiting weeks or months to access environmental readings, such as bacteria levels at the beach or wastewater discharges from power plants, environmental data will be shared among states, Native American tribes and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via the Web on the National Environmental Information Exchange Network.
University and private research laboratories, environmental groups or even television meteorologists also will be able to sign up to access environmental information reported by government agencies, as well as submit their own findings on environmental pollutants. The data are not open to the public for security reasons.
"The Exchange Network will help us overcome delays in making important environmental decisions and will be critical in responding to environmental emergencies," EPA assistant administrator Kimberly T. Nelson said during a press conference June 15 at the EPA's Emergency Operations Center in Washington, D.C. Nelson has been the lead coordinator for state/EPA information management.
More than a dozen states (Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Washington) have signed on to the Exchange Network, which officially went online this week, and the EPA expects up to 35 states to join by the end of the year.
The biggest obstacles to states and private companies reporting environmental data to the EPA have been the sheer volume of information and incompatible computer systems that do not allow the smooth transfer of data online. State environmental reports required by the federal government are one of the nation's largest reporting requirements, second only to tax reporting, Nelson said.
According to Nelson, who pioneered the nation's first online environmental reporting and permitting system for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection before joining the EPA, this has made data-sharing the most costly and time-consuming responsibility for environmental agencies, eating up on average half a department's budget.
Alleviating that burden has not been easy. It took the EPA nearly five years, working with state environmental agencies through the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), to create a standardized template for reporting data that could be used by any company or government agency connected to the Web.
"By creating a standardized vocabulary, states don't have to buy completely new computer systems to participate," Nelson said.
Michigan, one of the states that helped pioneer the Exchange Network, is already reaping the benefits, said state Information Technology Director Mike Beaulac.
With its large automobile and manufacturing industry, Michigan is responsible for monitoring the wastewater discharge from 1,200 plants on a weekly basis. Up until a year ago, these reports were issued on paper, mailed by the companies to the state Department of Natural Resources and manually entered into the computer system, resulting in months-long backlogs and error rates of 4 percent to 10 percent.
In 2003, Michigan began using a prototype of the Exchange Network to allow facilities to enter discharge reports electronically. In January 2004, the state began electronically reporting this data to the EPA, eliminating the state office's paper backlog. Michigan expects to save $250,000 to $500,000 this year and estimates that private companies will save $2.5 million.
"Information that used to take weeks to access can now be downloaded in seconds," Beaulac said. "This is a solution that has tremendous savings for private industry, states and the EPA."