The EPA plans to sunset its online archive

In July, the EPA plans to archive with old press releases, policy changes, regulatory actions and more. Those are important public resources, proponents say, but federal guidelines for keeping public records still fall short when it comes to protecting digital assets.

“Web services is now the language of government, [but] we don’t treat it with the same kind of respect that we are paper records,” said Gretchen Gehrke, one of the co-founders of a group that initially came together to prevent the Trump administration from destroying environmental data. The group, called the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), is still fighting for public access to resources such as the EPA’s online archive.

The archive is the only comprehensive way in which public information about the agencies’ policies, such as fact sheets breaking down the impact of environmental laws, and actions, such as how the agency implements those laws, has been preserved, Gehrke says. This makes the archive indispensable for understanding how regulations and enforcement have changed over the years. It also shows how the agency’s understanding of a problem such as climate change has evolved. And when the Trump administration removed information about climate change from the EPA’s website, much of it was still in the archives. In addition, Gehrke says that in principle the content should simply be available because it is public information, paid for with tax money.

“It’s pretty disturbing that the Biden administration would actually be doing the same things that we worried about under Trump,” said Chris Sellers, another EDGI member and a history professor at Stony Brook University. The default attitude still seems to be, he says, that “if it’s digital, you can throw it away.”

The archive was never built to be a permanent repository of content, and maintaining the aging site was no longer “cost-effective,” according to the EPA. The edge in a statement by e-mail. The EPA announced its retirement early this year, after completing an overhaul of its main website in 2021, but says the decision was years in the making. The agency maintains that it adheres to federal records management rules and that not all web pages qualify as official records to be kept.

The archive was certainly not perfect. “It’s not very user-friendly,” says Gehrke. For example, you can’t search by date to narrow down results from decades of archives. And some pages in the archives link to defunct URLs. But Gehrke would rather see the archive improved than dismantled.

The EPA says it plans to migrate much of the information to other places. Old press releases go to the current EPA press release website page. When it comes to the rest of the content, the EPA has a Processing to make decisions on a case-by-case basis about what content can be removed – and what is relevant enough to move to the modern website. Some content may be considered important enough join the National Archives. The public can request that content via the ​ Freedom of Information Act

However, that does not necessarily solve the problem of making the information easy to find.

The EPA appears to be working to increase the accessibility of its data in other areas. This week, the EPA unveiled a new tool intended to better inform the public about violations of environmental regulations. The tool allows people to sign up for weekly emails with an overview of violations in their area. It’s something EDGI has been advocating for years to make it easier for communities to protect themselves from polluters.

“It’s about time,” Sellers says. Before the tool went live, people could choose to webpage the EPA maintains enforcement and compliance history. But records in the page’s search function only go back a few years. Plus, on the EPA website, Sellers says, “It’s really hard to find stuff.”


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