EPA proposes rule to modernize, increase public access to NPDES reporting

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a rule that would modernize Clean Water Act (CWA) reporting processes – and make information more accessible to the public through EPA’s website.

Under the proposal, reports filed by municipalities, industries and other facilities regulated under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program would be converted to an electronic data reporting system. The proposed e-reporting rule would make facility-specific information, such as inspection and enforcement history, pollutant monitoring results, and other data required by permits accessible to the public through EPA’s website.

Upon implementation, EPA estimates savings of approximately $29 million annually.

“In addition to dramatically cutting costs for states and other regulatory authorities, the e-reporting rule will substantially expand transparency by making it easier for everyone to quickly access critical data on pollution that may be affecting communities,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “The e-reporting rule will also allow states and other regulatory authorities to focus limited resources on the most serious water quality problems, which will lead to increased compliance, improved water quality, and a level playing field for the regulated community.”

Currently, facilities subject to reporting requirements submit data in paper form to states and other regulatory authorities, where the information must be manually entered into data systems. Through the e-reporting rule, these facilities will electronically report their data directly to the appropriate regulatory authority. EPA expects that the e-reporting rule will lead to more comprehensive and complete data on pollution sources, quicker availability of the data for use, and increased accessibility and transparency of the data to the public.

The CWA requires that municipal, industrial or commercial facilities that discharge wastewater directly into waters of the United States obtain a permit. The NPDES program requires that permitted facilities monitor and report data on pollutant discharges and take other actions to ensure discharges do not affect human health or the environment.

Most facilities subject to reporting requirements will be required to start submitting data electronically one year following the effective date of the final rule. Facilities with limited access to the Internet will have the option of one additional year to come into compliance with the new rule. EPA will work closely with states to provide support to develop or enhance state electronic reporting capabilities.

EPA has already scheduled several webinars in an effort to help states, trade organizations, and other interested parties better understand the details and requirements of the proposed rule. Over the next few months, EPA expects to schedule additional webinar sessions.

The proposed rule will be available for review and public comment for 90 days. View the proposed rule in the Federal Register: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/07/30/2013-17551/npdes-electronic-reporting-rule. More information on webinars: http://www2.epa.gov/compliance/proposed-npdes-electronic-reporting-rule


Information release criticized

EPA’s release of information related to livestock operations earlier this year has drawn substantial criticism – and attempts to block future releases – from agricultural organizations and lawmakers.

Earlier this year, under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, EPA released information concerning concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to extremist groups, including Earth Justice, the Pew Charitable Trust and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The information covered CAFOs in more than 30 states. 

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) took legal action to stop EPA from publicly releasing additional personal information through additional FOIA requests. AFBF filed a lawsuit to seek a temporary restraining order before the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota.

According to AFBF, EPA has taken the position it has no legal obligation under FOIA to keep most of the information private. FOIA requests have been filed in Minnesota, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington.


Grassley, Donnelly introduce legislation

In July, U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joe Donnelly introduced legislation that would protect livestock and poultry farmers from having their personal information released by EPA.

In June, Senate and House members sent a letter to EPA, requesting information on its release of potentially sensitive CAFO data. In response, EPA outlined the rationale for the handling of the personal information, a response unsatisfactory for Grassley and Donnelly.

“Transparency is good for accountability, but putting the personal information of tens of thousands of farmers in the hands of environmental activists makes no sense,” said Grassley. “It’s par for the course at the EPA, and by the looks of the agency’s response, they aren’t going to end this reckless behavior.  It’s time for Congress to step in and fix the problem.” 

The legislation does not prevent the EPA from collecting the information about where farmers’ operations are located.  It also does not prevent EPA from disclosing information in the aggregate.  
Grassley and Donnelly filed a similar amendment to the Senate version of the 2013 Farm Bill, but it was not brought up for consideration.

In January 2012, EPA proposed the Clean Water Act Section 308 CAFO reporting rule to collect information from CAFOs and make it publicly available and readily searchable through their website. Cattlemen and women along with the Department of Homeland Security expressed concerns that this was not only a serious overreach of EPA’s authority and would create a road map for activists to harass individual families, but that the proposal would aid and abet terrorism and provide a very real threat to the nation’s food security. EPA later withdrew the 308 rule.


Read also: NCBA: EPA released producer information to activist groups