EPA pushes for deeper paper cuts

Ordered to cut paperwork by 40 percent, the Environmental Protection Agency

is preparing to accept all reports, filings and documents in electronic

form rather than on paper.

That decision, spurred by the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, could

save businesses tens of millions of dollars annually and eliminate millions

of hours of work spent preparing and storing hundreds of paper documents,

according to agency estimates.

But companies say there are still technical hurdles to overcome.

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

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

EPA that 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, EPA officials said.

Officials from the EPA's Office of Solid Waste met with business representatives

last week to detail the agency's paperwork reduction efforts. Switching

to electronic reporting and recordkeeping is a key part of the agency's

efforts to cut the 12.6 million hours' worth of paperwork down to 7.56 million

hours by Sept. 30, 2001, said Matt Hale, deputy director of the office.

But business representatives, including some from Exxon Mobil Corp.

and Boeing Co., said eliminating paper documents might not cut their workload

much if other requirements remain unchanged. In preparing chemical storage

tank inspection reports, for example, writing the report is the easy part,

an Exxon Mobil official said. If companies must still notify the EPA 30

days before an inspection, keep detailed records of the inspection and then

file a report on the inspection findings, putting the report in electronic

form rather than on paper won't make much difference, he said.

Hale said the Office of Solid Waste, which is one of the EPA's largest divisions,

also plans to eliminate about 100 of the 334 reports, notifications, certifications

and plans it requires companies to file.

Companies also worry about electronic security. "How can companies be

assured that electronic records they file cannot be changed?" a Boeing representative

asked. Digital signatures are needed for documents that must be signed,

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

records on time 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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