|The EPA has unveiled a new email notification service that updates the enforcement or compliance status of U.S. facilities under a range of environmental laws. Above, a power plant in West Virginia. Photo: haglundc, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.
Reporter’s Toolbox: ‘ECHO Notify’ Offers Automatic Pollution Alarms
By Joseph A. Davis
Have you got a “polluter of interest” in your area? Now, a new government gizmo will help you keep an eye on it. It’s like a puppy treat for the watchdog journalists among us.
In the past, SEJournal has urged readers to give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online, or ECHO, database a whirl. ECHO compiles updated data on whether industrial plants and their parent companies are complying with their permits and following the law.
We have also tried to keep up with its many improvements over the years. Now there’s an update that qualifies as news.
This March, EPA unveiled “ECHO Notify,” a new email notification service that sends out a weekly email updating the enforcement or compliance status of any and all plants you might be eyeing with suspicion.
Where the data comes from
It’s helpful to know that ECHO follows compliance with all the major environmental laws.
That includes the Clean Water Act; Clean Air Act; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; Safe Drinking Water Act; Superfund (CERCLA); Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act; Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act; and Toxic Substances Control Act.
Each of these laws manages the cases of potential polluters via some kind of permitting mechanism. If they violate their permit, EPA starts enforcement action, which could end up with the polluter going to court, paying a hefty fine or even going to jail.
ECHO tells you if they are following their permits — or not. It tracks each stage of the enforcement process.
You can ask Notify to send you information only
on a certain state, county or ZIP code. An even
more powerful feature is one that allows you
to ask for info on a particular facility or facilities.
As a practical reality, most of these permits are managed by state environmental agencies. ECHO tracks those state actions, too. In fact, most of the data comes from the states.
You can also look up anything in particular that you might want to know because the database is online and searchable. It is a powerful investigative tool, and it is more accurate and informative than some other EPA databases we could mention.
How to use the data smartly
The nifty part of ECHO Notify is how extensively it allows you to tailor and customize what kind of information you want.
Start by creating an account. Once you do, you can ask Notify to send you information only on a certain state, county or ZIP code.
An even more powerful feature is one that allows you to ask for info on a particular facility or facilities. You do this by looking up the facilities (one or more) with EPA’s Facility Registry Service, or FRS.
The FRS standardizes identifiers across all EPA databases so that you can track both a plant’s air and water emissions. You can also track a facility across state, federal and tribal agencies, or track it by industry category or organizational affiliation.
You can also select only the pollution laws you are interested in or the stage of enforcement action.
If any of this interests you — or if you want to round up the “usual suspects” — it may be worth your while to take another look at the ECHO database as a whole. Start on the main page or go straight to the search portal. ECHO is well-documented, and the website has steadily improved in many ways over the years.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 14. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.