By KATE GOLDEN
In late 2009, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle touted ethanol producer Didion Milling Inc.’s award of $5.6 million in federal stimulus funds for energy-efficiency projects. The state had helped Didion get the award. But what Doyle didn’t mention  was that Didion was one of the state’s most chronic air and water polluters, designated by the federal government as a “high priority violator.”
Didion, which casts itself as an eco-friendly company, settled a lawsuit with the state in 2010, agreeing to pay $1.05 million for 23 air and water claims that stretched back to 1989.
Had federal contract administrators simply checked ECHO, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s public database of environmental compliance, they would have seen that Didion had at least 11 notices of violation — among the most for any Wisconsin facility listed at the time.
That’s how I learned almost instantly that the tip I’d gotten on Didion was good.
The Enforcement and Compliance History Online  shows enforcement data for more than 800,000 facilities regulated under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the national hazardous waste law. It reveals how often a facility has been inspected, the number of notices of violations of each type, and whether the company has paid for any violations, among other things.
ECHO also is offering beta versions of records on drinking water and criminal enforcement, although I haven’t used those much.
Naturally, this official database of numbers, permits and violations is bereft of the human stories that make us care about pollution. You’ll have to find those elsewhere.
But ECHO can give you an excellent start on these kinds of questions: How well is a particular industry being monitored? Who are the biggest violators in your area? Are regulators following up on notices of violation with formal punishment? Are violators getting handouts from state or federal programs? (The handouts aren’t in ECHO, but you can match the facilities with other databases or documents.)
The search query is nimble. You can search for facility names or by industry. By geographic region, down to the zip code. By its enforcement history. By how much toxic stuff it releases into the environment. And you can produce the output on a Google map or export a spreadsheet.
But as you begin, beware. Not all violations are equal.
Didion had built 15 grain silos, three mills and a grain dryer without ever applying for the required air pollution permit. Those were big. But some violations you’ll encounter in ECHO are ho-hum, like late paperwork.
You have a few ways to winnow out less interesting violations. Narrow your search to “high priority violators,” “significant” violations, facilities in current noncompliance, or ones that emit a lot of pollution and so are automatically more newsworthy. When you find something, call the enforcers and get the details. Then call local advocates and ask them how much they care.
That’s my basic message on ECHO: It’s a useful tool but not an authoritative source. You need actual people or other documents to verify what you find.
What ECHO is missing
ECHO’s many official-looking details may give the appearance that it spits out everything of consequence about a site. Not so.
Scott Fallon, an environmental reporter at The Record in Bergen County, N.J., has been covering the toxic hexavalent chromium plumes  underneath Garfield, N.J, which he calls “one of the most contaminated sites in New Jersey.”
A row of grain silos at the Didion Milling company’s ethanol plant in Cambria, Wisconsin, which also makes dried distiller grains as a byproduct that are used for animal feed. PHOTO BY MATTHEW WISNIEWSKI, GREAT LAKES BIOENERGY RESEARCH CENTER.
Fallon notes that if you looked up the E.C. Electroplating facility in ECHO, you’d miss a lot: That it’s been a Superfund site since October 2011. That the EPA is in charge (ECHO lists the state, which hasn’t had control for years.) That the primary contaminant is hexavalent chromium. And that there is a public health threat; the chromium has migrated off the site and underneath nearby homes. ECHO doesn’t even link to the Garfield Superfund page, Fallon says.
Another problem is that sites are listed by facility, not company. A search for “Didion” yields 13 facilities in Wisconsin, Missouri and Ohio. It’s not at all clear which facilities are connected to the Cambria, Wis., facility with the terrible track record. So if you want to find a company that has a pattern of noncompliance at several facilities, you’ll need to research where those facilities are and what they’re called.
The focus on facilities rather than companies also makes it difficult to match bad actors with other databases, such as federal contracting records.
When ECHO is wrong
Fallon’s example illuminates another problem: ECHO is rife with inaccuracies, lags and omissions. A 2010 audit  found just 8.5 percent of “key data elements” in ECHO were wrong, but it’s wise to tread cautiously. I have called state regulators about high-priority violators in current noncompliance only to find the problems were resolved, and I’ve seen ECHO omit violations I knew existed.
As a result, be wary of relying on metrics calculated from ECHO spreadsheets, like inspection or enforcement rates. EPA’s Office of Inspector General uses the data that way,  so theoretically you can too. But you should ask how promptly and accurately EPA or your state has been entering that data, and disclose the caveats.
It can be helpful to see what the EPA knows about the errors in ECHO. First, check EPA’s “Data Alerts” on ECHO’s front page, which give you a heads-up about delays, errors and omissions in each state. Then check the State Review Framework,  where EPA summarizes where each state fell short in enforcing the federal laws and entering the data into ECHO.
Such enforcement gaps may sometimes be stories, too. The inspector general’s office said in a scathing 2011 report  that EPA’s national enforcement is “significantly unequal” from state to state, “providing unequal environmental benefits to the public and an unlevel playing field for regulated industries.” The analysis was based in part on data from ECHO.
Kate Golden is a reporter and multimedia producer at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer/Fall 2012.  Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here  or learn how to join SEJ.  Past issues are archived for the public here.