Category Archives: Environmental

Researchers Rush to Preserve Data on Government Websites

For over 200 years, public notices have been published in newspapers in part as a consequence of the inviolability of newsprint. Legislators have always understood that when they passed laws requiring notice of official actions to be published in newspapers, a record of the notice would be easy to authenticate and would remain in newspaper archives in perpetuity.

A recent conference of independent researchers provides an excellent reminder that government websites fail miserably at meeting that traditional public-notice standard.

According to StateImpact Pennsylvania, about 100 researchers met in Philadelphia last month to participate in the University of Pennsylvania’s Data Refuge “hackathon,” to copy important environmental data that they fear may disappear from government websites for political reasons. The archivists, librarians, tech workers and students “hunched over computers” and made notations on white-boards as they raced to preserve climate data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that was potentially endangered by the incoming Trump Administration.

But regardless of whether their worst fears turn out to be valid, government websites are not a reliable place to store important information, assistant director for digital scholarship at Penn Laurie Allen told StateImpact, a collaboration between local NPR stations in the Pennsylvania.

“The internet is a terribly unstable way to keep information available,” said Allen. “A huge number of references to websites no longer work.”

Within hours of its inauguration, the Trump Administration demonstrated that the researchers who met at Penn were prescient, as reports quickly circulated about information that had been erased from the White House and other federal agency websites.

Government Website Notice Inadequate, Admits Environmental Agency

heidi2_529340_7The director of the same Michigan environmental agency under fire for dismissing concerns about the contamination of Flint’s water supply admitted her department failed to provide sufficient notice of another recent water proposal in the state, according to MLive Media Group.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) director Heidi Grether (pictured on the left) told an air and waste management law conference last week that 42 days on MDEQ’s website “probably” wasn’t sufficient to properly notify the public about a request by Nestle Waters North America to increase the amount of groundwater it pumps in Osceola County. Grether was named director of MDEQ in August after her predecessor was forced to resign in the wake of the Flint crisis.

“Was this advertised and noticed in a way it should have been? Probably not, it appears to me,” Grether said.

Nestle’s request first came to wide public attention on Oct. 31, when Garret Ellison of The Grand Rapids Press reported on the multinational corporation’s plan to increase the amount of groundwater it pumps from a particular well by 167 percent. MDEQ received more than 3,000 emails after the news organization published the story, which prompted the agency to extend the public comment period by several months. MDEQ also now plans to schedule a public hearing on Nestle’s request, which would support a $36 million expansion of its Ice Mountain bottling plant in the state.

MDEQ has already issued a draft approval for the request.

“The issue is the privatization of a critical resource,” Jeff Ostahowski told MLive. The vice president of the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) objects to water bring diverted from watersheds that feed the Great Lakes.

An attorney who represented MCWC in a previous battle with Nestle over groundwater pumping told MLive the right of Michigan citizens to register their opinion on government decisions about water has been “diminished to the point of absurdity.”

“Water is public, subject to high ethical and legal duties of protection for Great Lakes, lakes and streams, wetlands, groundwater, fishing, recreation, farming and businesses here,” said Jim Olson, co-founder of the Traverse City-based freshwater advocacy nonprofit FLOW (For Love of Water). “The MDEQ’s handling of the Nestle application is as lax as the handling of the Flint water crisis. Nothing has changed.”

MDEQ’s latest crisis comes on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision to eliminate mandatory newspaper notice for Clean Air Act permits issued by it and EPA-affiliated agencies like MDEQ. EPA eliminated newspaper notice (PDF) for actions taken under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2000.

EPA Eliminates Mandatory Newspaper Notice for Clean Air Act Permits

epa_logo-jpgThe Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced it was eliminating the mandatory requirement to provide newspaper notice of permitting and implementation actions under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The rule, which will take effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register, The rule requires notification on EPA’s new “National Public Notices Website” and allows other agencies that implement EPA-approved CAA programs to publish notices on their websites as well.

The rule doesn’t prevent permitting authorities from supplementing notice on their own websites with newspaper notice. In addition, it doesn’t override state laws requiring state and local environmental agencies to use newspapers to notify the public about EPA-approved permitting actions under the CAA. In those states, new laws would have to be passed to eliminate the newspaper-notice requirement.

EPA responded at length to comments PNRC submitted earlier this year (PDF) in response to the agency’s original proposal. (See pp. 28-38 of this “Internet version” of the rule (PDF) obtained by PNRC.) EPA appears to have been most sensitive to PNRC’s argument that eliminating newspaper notice would disadvantage rural, elderly and low-income Americans without Internet access. But the agency swept aside those concerns by citing a 2010 study that showed 44 percent of citizens “living below the poverty line” use library computers.

“We do not dispute that some individuals may continue to rely on newspapers rather than the Internet to obtain information and that there may be greater concentrations of such persons in some communities,” the agency said. “However … this does not take away the added benefits cited by other commenters of reaching additional individuals through the Internet and providing notice continuously during the public comment period.”

EPA disagreed with PNRC’s contention that public notices should be published by independent third parties, not the government agencies whose actions are subject to notification. But rather than address this “fox guarding the henhouse” argument, EPA noted instead that “(PNRC) has not demonstrated that newspapers generally exercise independent editorial control over the content of legal notices or … otherwise seek to check the veracity of what the newspaper company is paid to print in these sections of its publication.”

EPA was persuaded by PNRC’s arguments that public notices published in newspapers can provide verification that is absent on the web, and that EPA.gov doesn’t presently include hyperlinks referring users to the agency’s public notices. In response to those concerns, EPA adopted recommendations that weren’t included in its original proposal, encouraging permitting authorities to “certify” e-notice dates and “include hyperlinks” to public notices on their websites.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the new rule was EPA’s announcement that since mid-2015 it has been developing a “National Public Notices Website” to publish notices for all EPA actions subject to notice requirements. The agency expects the website to be completed and implemented by the end of the year, and it welcomed other permitting authorities to review the site for best practices. This announcement tells us, of course, that EPA began developing the site about six months before it issued its proposal to eliminate newspaper notice, but decided not to mention it until now.

The new rule follows the Obama Administration’s 2011 Executive Order requiring federal agencies to “end unnecessary printing” by “making information available online for the public.”

Government Website Leaves Residents with Little Notice about Bee-Killing Zika Spray

dead_beeMany residents in Dorchester County, South Carolina were upset by the lack of notice from government officials about a recent aerial insecticide spray that killed millions of honeybees, according to USA Today. The county sprayed naled, which is harmful to bees and other insects, in order to kill mosquitos that are known to carry Zika.

A local TV news station reported that many people said they had been notified by phone only 10 hours before the spray. County officials responded by noting that they had also posted a notice on the county website two days earlier.

Texas Water Supplier Cited; Has History of Public Notice Violations

The Dog Ridge Water Supply Corp. was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on Friday for failing to collect a sufficient number of samples required as a result of earlier tests that showed the presence of E. coli and coliform bacteria, according to the Temple (Texas) Daily Telegram. The company, which supplies drinking water to approximately 4,500 people in Bell County, purchases its water from the Central Texas Water Supply Corp. The Daily Telegram reports that both Dog Ridge and its supplier have been cited for multiple violations by TCEQ for failing to follow the state’s public notice requirements.

The value of public awareness of water quality has been highlighted by the controversy over the tainted water supply in Flint, Michigan, where public notice in newspapers had been eliminated by changes in federal and state rules.