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Summary of Environmental and Community Groups Listening Session

National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information
Bauman Foundation Building
Washington, D.C.
May 15, 2008

Quick Summary: Recommendations From The Environmental and Community Groups Included:

Information transparency is of major importance to the environmental and community group representatives. They believe EPA should make as much information available as possible (e.g., the Administrator’s appointment book, the rulemaking process, the scientific basis of policy decisions, information product development process, and how information is being used).

These representatives stressed the importance of improving access to data and the right to know.

Expansion of data collection is a key concern.

Representatives suggested that EPA work with other federal agencies to ensure coordination of high quality, comprehensive data: to facilitate inter-agency data-sharing, a shared facility ID number and corporate ID number are very important.

These representatives are concerned that the use of a rigorous, transparent scientific approach is compromised due to political influence and pressures.

Information outreach was recognized as an essential ingredient to information access. EPA should proactively push information out to the public and other stakeholder groups, and should work to build demand for its information.

This group strongly believes that EPA’s libraries, collections, and librarians are an essential ingredient of a successful information access policy.

A key component of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information is a series of facilitated listening sessions to elicit input on the types of environmental information that EPA’s stakeholders use, how they use it, and their preferred formats, channels, and venues for obtaining this information. This report summarizes inputs from a National Dialogue Listening Session with nonprofit environmental and community group representatives from the Washington, D.C. area. The Appendix at the end of this document provides information about the participants, including their job titles, affiliations, job descriptions, and how they use environmental information in their work.

Initial Comments

Representatives of industry and trade associations identified the types of environmental information and specific topics that are most important in their work. Overall, the participants are especially interested in easy access to clear, up-to-date, and relevant regulatory information. Another key concern is the quality of EPA’s data and information. They are also interested in accessing databases, product safety information, educational and background materials on select environmental issues, and EPA operational information, and would like easier access to EPA staff.

Representatives of the environmental community raised several issues with EPA at the beginning of the listening session. The lack of participation in this session by most NGO's demonstrated a lack of confidence in EPA and the overall process.  One of the environmental respondents who did participate questioned why the environmental community should take EPA’s National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information seriously.  He and other environmental representatives are concerned that EPA has not listened to them regarding other issues (e.g., TRI rulemakings and the closing of some EPA libraries) and wonders if this initiative will be any different. Other environmental participants responded that while they agree that EPA has not been as responsive as they would like in recent years, they hope that the National Dialogue will be a catalyst around which they can begin a new dialogue with EPA and pave the way for improved response from the next Administration – they would be “surprised and impressed” if significant changes occur during the current Administration. They stated that the challenge to EPA will be to restore their reputation for providing a balance between the environmental community and industry, and to convince the environmental community that access is a priority. One respondent noted that “the last time there was a good change in access was when ECHO came out, five years ago.” Another participant added that transparency is equally as important as access.

Another issue raised by the environmental community respondents was whether EPA scientists are being included in the National Dialogue. A recent survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that scientists at EPA feel they do not have a voice within the Agency and that they cannot openly express concerns about problems inside the Agency with EPA management. They are living a “culture of fear and intimidation, …afraid they’ll be put in an office with no supplies.” The participant asked how the National Dialogue will work with EPA scientists to create a safe space to provide this input.

Types of Environmental and Public Health Information that Participants Use

Representatives of the environmental community identified several types of environmental information that are of particular interest to them. They also discussed numerous characteristics of environmental information and EPA’s handling of the information that they believe are critical to ensuring that environmental and community groups, and the public at large, can achieve access to this information.

In terms of environmental topics, the representatives who attended this listening session are especially interested in the following:

While discussing the need for the information listed above, the environmental group participants described a number of characteristics required to make environmental and public health information truly useful.  These characteristics include:

To help address these issues, respondents suggested:

Formats for Environmental and Public Health Information

The environmental representatives made few comments regarding preferred formats for environmental information. However, there was consensus that all EPA databases be made available on-line in a single-integrated database whereby all separate databases could be simultaneously queried.  Such a query would also permit unlimited data extraction from these databases in any of several standard data formats, such as spreadsheets, SQL, ASCII, and so forth.  A generalized report writer, including program performance measure sample queries and broad statistical tools, should be provided to facilitate research.

Without trained librarians, information access is opaque, if not useless.

In addition, one representative noted that in the area of children’s health in schools, short publications would be useful to help parents and school personnel negotiate on environmental issues in their schools. It would also be helpful for agencies to work together to create advisories specific to children’s health.

Channels and Venues for Delivery of Environmental and Public Health Information

The environmental representatives mentioned several ways that EPA can ensure that its stakeholders have access to environmental information.  These are summarized below.

Appendix
Participant Summary
Group I: Environmental and Community Groups

The information in the following table, compiled from participant sign-in sheets, summarizes key data about the participants. As shown, the seven environmental and community group participants work at Washington, DC, based advocacy organizations. They include researchers, program managers, executive directors, and policy analysts.

Summary of Environmental & Community Group Representatives

Organization

Job Title

Job Description

Union of Concerned Scientists

Program Manager, Scientific Integrity Program

Works to prevent political interference in science and to improve government use of scientific information.

OMB Watch

Director, Federal Information Policy

Advocate for greater transparency in federal government.

OMB Watch

Environmental RTK Network Coordinator

Conducts policy analysis regarding access to environmental information. Coordinates nationwide network of public information (PI) groups interested in environmental information.

World Resources Institute (WRI)

Program Coordinator, Institutions & Governance

Empowers citizens and supports institutions to promote environmentally sound and socially just decision making.

Not applicable

Consultant
(former Director of the Working Group on Community RTK)

Consults on reports on community chemical hazards.

Healthy Schools Network

Executive Director

Works on non-profit environmental health information, education, research, and advocacy for children.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

Executive Director

Not provided.

 

Types of Environmental Information

The environmental and community participants provided the following information about the types of environmental information they use:

Uses of Environmental Information

The environmental and community representatives indicated that they use environmental information in the following ways:

 


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