Lawsuit challenges feds' right to put data on Web

In a case that could challenge the authority of federal agencies to publish data on the World Wide Web, a former top reviewer of federal regulations has sued the Environmental Protection Agency over its plans to enhance one of its most popular databases on the Internet.

Jim Tozzi, a former Office of Management and Budget top official whose Washington, D.C., consulting firm, Multinational Business Services Inc., lobbies on regulatory issues on behalf of multinational corporations, has charged that an EPA plan to present risk-assessment data as part of its Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) database violates the Paperwork Reduction Act because it will use TRI data for a different purpose than that for which it was originally collected.

John Chelen, executive director of the Unison Institute, which publishes TRI data and enhancements to it through a program called the Right-to-Know Network, said a ruling in Tozzi's favor would discourage other agencies from helping the public interpret information the government collects.

The TRI compiles information concerning emissions of more than 600 toxic chemicals by about 31,000 manufacturing companies and government facilities. The new program, called the Sector Facility Indexing Project, is designed to make this data easier to interpret by rating how hazardous the emissions are.

SFIP "substantially" changes the current database— a condition that requires the EPA to seek public comment and OMB review according to the paperwork law— said Tozzi, whose 11-year service at OMB in the 1970s and early 1980s included a term as the first deputy administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Even though the EPA is not asking for new data from regulated companies, "when they collected it, they told the respondents what they [were] going to use it for,'' Tozzi said. "If you're going to change the use for what you collected it initially, [companies] ought to be able to respond to it and review it.''

"This lawsuit is part of the arsenal he is using to slow down the public's right to know,'' said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a government watchdog group that usually sides with environmentalists on regulatory issues. "If for every type of data integration project a federal agency needs to seek public comment, it will grind virtually all management activities to a halt.''

He added, however, that in the case of this particular proj-ect, "maybe" the EPA should seek formal review.

The project, which began in 1995, would integrate companies' information about chemical discharges reported for the TRI with other EPA data, including environmental permits.

In his suit, Tozzi said he filed the complaint because he believed the EPA was planning to make the new data public next month. EPA officials involved with the program could not be reached for comment last week.

The case, Jim J. Tozzi v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Jan. 23. Following a March 6 hearing, Judge Thomas F. Hogan is expected to rule on a preliminary injunction to block the EPA from publishing SFIP data.

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