EPA: Cut paper, not trees

The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to accept all reports,

filings and documents in electronic form rather than on paper, a move the

agency says that could help cut paperwork by 40 percent.

Eliminating paper documents could save businesses tens of millions of

dollars a year and eliminate millions of hours of work, EPA officials estimate.

But companies that must file EPA reports say some technical hurdles

remain.

Companies are required to prepare hundreds of reports - from waste disposal

manifests to reports on chemical storage tank inspections — to show they

are complying with environmental protection laws. Electronic reporting could

make the process simpler and faster, particularly if companies use "smart"

software embedded with EPA information that automatically helps fill out

forms, said officials from EPA's Office of Solid Waste during a meeting

Thursday with business representatives.

The EPA hopes to cut the 12.6 million hours' worth of paperwork it requires

companies to fill out each year down to 7.56 million hours by Sept. 30,

2001, said Matt Hale, deputy director of the office.

Some business representatives are skeptical. Substituting electronic

documents for paper ones might not cut the workload much if other requirements

remain unchanged, said an official from Exxon Mobil Corp.

To prepare a report on a chemical storage tank inspection, for example,

companies still must notify the EPA 30 days before the inspection, keep

detailed records of the inspection and then write the report. The writing

part is easy, and it makes little difference whether the final form is electronic

or paper, the official said.

Hale said his office hopes to eliminate about 100 of the 334 reports,

notifications, certifications and plans it now requires companies to file.

Companies also worry about electronic security, a Boeing Co. representative

said. Can companies be assured that the electronic records they file cannot

be changed? Digital signatures are needed for documents, such as manifests,

that in their paper form must be signed, the representative said. And the

EPA should develop a "time stamp" so companies can prove they filed records

even if the records cannot be located, he said.

Without such measures, "Boeing is hesitant to use electronic reporting,"

he said. "It ends up being double the work because we also do it on paper"

to be able to prove that it was done, he said.

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