Category Archives: Federal

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.

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.”

PNRC Files Comments Opposing EPA Proposal

The Public Notice Resource Center today filed comments urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not to deprive the public of newspaper notices relating to the approval of permits under the Clean Air Act (CAA). EPA is considering notifying the public about CAA permits only on a government website.

PNRC was joined in the comments by the 43 other organizations representing newspapers and journalists.

On Dec. 29, EPA announced its intention to reduce the public notice it currently provides in connection with most CAA actions by eliminating the requirement that the notices run in local newspapers near the potential sources of pollution EPA is planning to approve.

“If EPA moves forward with this proposal, it will increase the likelihood that the people who stand to feel the greatest impact from its decisions will be left in the dark until it’s too late,” said Bradley L. Thompson II, president of PNRC. “The Agency’s determination to inform citizens about its plans by posting notices in obscure corners of its website isn’t sufficiently transparent. It is especially unfortunate when pollsters tell us people are suspicious of Washington. Keeping these notices local in places where readers will find them is a good way to combat public cynicism.”

PNRC’s comments note that EPA based its proposal on the mistaken assumption that citizens affirmatively seek public notices and will regularly visit its website to learn about its plans. PNRC also notes that for over 200 years lawmakers have required public notices to be published in newspapers because they offer the best opportunity to reach local, civically engaged readers who are most likely to have a personal interest in the plans and activities described in the notices.

PNRC is a nonprofit organization that provides research and public education materials on the use of public notice in newspapers. It is supported by contributions from newspaper organizations throughout the U.S., including members of the American Court and Commercial Newspapers and most state press associations.

For a copy of PNRC’s comments, click this link to download the document.