Coast Guard Spill Database Rendered Almost Useless for Reporters

March 11, 2015

There used to be a database of oil and chemical spill reports that reporters could turn to in an emergency to get insight into important breaking news. The National Response Center (NRC) was online and searchable. But ham-handed security efforts have sabotaged the public's right to know.

Right now, emergency responders are working on a spill of a cancer-causing fuel additive known as MTBE. Last week, a tanker-train derailment near Galena, Illinois, threatened to put crude oil into the Mississippi River. But news reporters probably couldn't get much if any helpful information from the database today (we checked).

After the NRC database disappeared entirely for a number of months, some of the data is back online in a far less helpful form. Instead of the old searchable and interactive site, there is a page from which you can download some spreadsheets.

But the spreadsheets do not include all the data that NRC used to disclose — including some basic and important information such as the type of substance believed to be spilled. And the spreadsheets come in batches that are not updated daily.

The Coast Guard, which runs the database, said it was taken down last year so that it could be rebuilt to comply with current military cyber-security standards. The Coast Guard is a quasi-military agency even though many of its missions are in the civilian arena.

The NRC is the single point of emergency contact for hazardous material spills under several laws, including the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). Under law, information reportable under EPCRA is supposed to be publicly available. But that requirement has been largely ignored in the most recent revamp of the NRC database.

To download the National Response Center data in spreadsheet form, go here.

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