State, local and federal environmental officials can now get real-time access to air and water data reported electronically on a new Internet-based information-sharing network.
The 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.
For security reasons, the data is not open to the public; however, university and private research laboratories, environmental groups and meteorologists will be able to sign up to access environmental information reported by government agencies, and submit their own environmental findings.
EPA Assistant Administrator Kimberly T. Nelson said, "The Exchange Network will help us overcome delays in making important environmental decisions and will be critical in responding to environmental emergencies."
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, reported Stateline.org.
In the past, because of the volume of information and incompatible computer systems that do not allow the smooth transfer of data online, states and private companies reporting environmental data to the EPA experienced difficulties. According to Nelson, state environmental reports required by the federal government are one of the nations largest reporting requirements; therefore, this has made data-sharing the most costly and time-consuming responsibility for environmental agencies, eating up on average half a departments budget.
The EPA has been working with state environmental agencies through the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) for almost five years 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 dont have to buy completely new computer systems to participate," Nelson said.
With its large automobile and manufacturing industry, Michigan, one of the states that helped pioneer the Exchange Network is responsible for monitoring the wastewater discharge from 1,200 plants on a weekly basis. 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 to 10 percent.
In 2003, Michigan began using a prototype of the Exchange Network to allow facilities to enter discharge reports electronically. In the beginning of 2004, the state began electronically reporting this data to the EPA, eliminating the state offices paper backlog. Michigan expects to save $250,000 to $500,000 this year and estimates that private companies will save $2.5 million, the Stateline.org reported.
"Information that used to take weeks to access can now be downloaded in seconds," said state Information Technology Director Mike Beaulac. "This is a solution that has tremendous savings for private industry, states and the EPA."