A networked environment

To develop sound environmental policies and make sure they're being followed, the Environmental Protection Agency requires a lot of information. It can't collect all the data it needs on its own, so much of the collection and sharing burden falls on the states.

And a burden it has been. An array of information sharing schemes has germinated over the years to accommodate an equal number of national environmental programs — concerning air emissions, water quality, toxic releases and more — forcing states to feed a complex beast with disparate data systems. But a close-knit collaboration between the EPA and states hopes to change all that.

The agency's goal is to create a National Environmental Information Exchange Network, an Internet-based system where standardized environmental data is rationally shared and easily accessible. With each state and the EPA having one point of entry, or node, on the network, and following agreed-upon formats, officials involved in the project see many benefits, including reduced data redundancy, better-quality data, improved security and, ultimately, better environmental policy.

"What we needed to do was build a system that's locally and nationally accessible that will give people access to information they need to document performance and understand the environment to make better decisions," said Bob Zimmerman, environmental administrator at Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and a member of the EPA/state working group.

EPA and state officials have worked together closely since 1998 — when they hashed out a vision for the network — through development of a detailed blueprint published last year and testing of initial data exchanges involving air emissions information this year.

"We have a shared need to come together to address how we share information because we're all basically in the business of environmental protection," said Diane Esanu, senior communications specialist for the EPA's Office of Environmental Information (OEI).

Under the network, participating states will format environmental data using Extensible Markup Language and post it at agreed-upon intervals to a Web site that serves as its node. The EPA and, down the line, additional partners — other states, local and tribal governments, regulated industries and others — can then access that data directly from the network.

Governing the easier flow of data will be trading partner agreements, set between the EPA and individual states and based on agreements used in the private sector that spell out the data to be uploaded to the network, how often it will be updated, when it can be accessed and other responsibilities. Nebraska signed the first agreement with the EPA's Region 7 office in May.

"The key is establishing upfront the information you need, its quality and format," said Michael Flynn, manager of the Information Integration Program for OEI. "It's more about that dialogue than the magic of the technology."

The trading partner agreements should go a long way toward enhancing data stewardship — the idea that each organization is responsible for the data it collects, said Dana Bisbee, assistant commissioner for New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services and co-chairman of the EPA/state working group. "It's an essential underlying principle of the network."

With the states mostly serving as data stewards, the information they provide will likely remain accurate and reliable, Bisbee said. The EPA will no longer have different sets of the same data because of multiple reporting requirements.

"The EPA is getting no new information that it hasn't been getting already," Zimmerman said. "The real benefit of the network is that the information is accurate, that it is formatted properly so they have less problems on their end."

Officials stress that the network is still in its infancy and won't go live overnight or all at once. "We're going to be building capacity and increasing the number of participants and flows of data through the network," the EPA's Flynn said. "As word has gotten out, there's been more and more interest in what this is and how people can play."Granting states' wishes

President Bush has included a new $25 million grant program in his Environmental Protection Agency budget request to help states build the infrastructure needed to participate in the National Environmental Information Exchange Network.

The grant program, if adopted, would help states interested in joining the network become active participants, said Diane Esanu, a senior communications specialist at the EPA. The agency is now working with states to develop the grant program, and a draft proposal has been written, she said.

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