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Vanderbilt University Right to Know Conference Nashville, Tennessee

Carol M. Browner, Administrator Environmental Protection Agency Remarks Prepared for Delivery Vanderbilt University Right to Know Conference Nashville, Tennessee
 March 3, 1999
     I'd like to thank Professor Cohen for that introduction.

     I'd also like to thank Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund and Denny Minano of General Motors for agreeing to take part in today's forum. We've worked together on many issues and I'm glad to see you here today.

     Our topic today is information and the part it plays in the regulatory process. I'd like to take just a minute to put the topic in context.

     In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and the Information Age was born. For the first time, information previously available to the privileged few was now available to all. The resulting explosion in literacy and knowledge changed the pace of both culture and politics. And the world was a different place.

     Knowledge is power. People have the right to know about the world around them and how particular events or circumstances affect their lives. The principle of free-flowing information is so important that our Founding Fathers guaranteed it in the First Amendment.

     At EPA we strongly believe in the people's right to know and under this administration we have expanded it considerably.

     We believe putting information into the hands of the American people is one of the best ways to protect public health and the environment. Give people the facts, and they can make intelligent, informed decisions about how to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.

     Our experience with the Toxic Release Inventory proves this philosophy. Ten years ago, this country began to require industrial facilities to report to their communities about the toxic chemicals they were releasing into the environment.

     And that simple requirement has had an enormous benefit for the American people. For those facilities, toxic emissions have gone down by almost half without passing any new regulations.

     There were those who feared these reporting requirements would hurt business and be a drag on the economy. But we see just the opposite is true. The business environment is booming right alongside our natural environment.

     Well, all we want more results like that.  This Administration has doubled the number of chemicals that must be reported -- and increased by 30 percent the number of facilities that have to report.

     In April, the Vice President took another step to expand the public's right to know -- a new voluntary initiative with the chemical industry to give the public basic health information on the 3,000 chemicals most used in this country. And I'd like to thank Fred Krupp, who you will hear from later, for the leadership he provided on this issue.

     The First Lady has announced an important right-to-know tool that will help families make daily decisions about how best to protect their children when smog levels are dangerously high and pose a threat to public health. Twenty two states and the District of Columbia have joined EPA to give people current information about smog levels in their communities -- a significant step we take to protect our children who suffer from asthma.

     And thanks to the President and the Vice President, through the Safe Drinking Water Act we will provide citizens what we call Consumer Confidence Reports. Every year, in their bills, citizens will receive easy-to-understand updates on the quality of tap water in their communities. Some states are doing this already but we need to guarantee all our communities are getting this valuable information.

     All our right-to-know initiatives are great news for the American people. But they also
present EPA with a challenge: How best to manage the enormous amount of data that is gathered?

     Gutenberg would, of course, be stunned if he saw the amount of information available to
the public today. Consider this: A Gutenberg press could process only about 300 pages a day. Last month alone, EPA's webpage had 50 million hits and processed requests for 9.6 million pages of information.

     At EPA we realized we needed to streamline the process of both how we gather information and how we get it out to the public. Working with the states, industries and consumers, we are forming a new information office that should open for business this summer. Our goal is a one-stop data shop where information will be both easier to get for consumers and easier to provide for states and industry.

     To get things started, last year EPA and the states launched a cooperative program called Reinventing Environmental Information, or REI. EPA generates only a small portion of the data it stores. The goal of REI was to improve the way both the federal and state governments manage information by developing shared standards for the collection and storage of computerized data.

     With the REI program we also hope to be able to reduce the present reporting burden of our states and regulated industries. We will be looking to cut unnecessary or duplicative reporting requirements and encourage electronic reporting to make the process quicker and more convenient.

     For instance, one thing we're doing is creating a system of unique identities for each facility we regulate. With this advancement that is simple in concept -- yet challenging technically -- people will be able to access information from a variety of sources that is integrated, easy to understand and make it easier for them to make decisions affecting their communities.

     We will also be encouraging regulated industries to "self-audit" the information they report . Our audit policy slashes, and in some cases eliminates, penalties for those who voluntarily discover, promptly disclose and quickly correct violations. We think this offers a powerful incentive for voluntary compliance.

     Already EPA has waived or reduced penalties for 89 companies at 433 facilities under this program.

     EPA's Small Business Policy offers similar relief to businesses that employ 100 or fewer people. Small businesses that participate in onsite compliance assistance programs or conduct environmental audits to discover, disclose and correct violations, can also see their penalties waived or reduced.

     We also need to assure businesses that we will protect the confidentiality of any proprietary information.

     But gathering information is just one half of the job. We are also working to make it easy to find, easy to read and easy to understand.

     For the average citizen, and even the most experienced computer user, finding the information they need to protect their health and the environment in their communities can be a frustrating journey through the nation's data warehouses.

     For information about drinking water safety, a citizen might have to go to their local public works department.

     To find out if a local factory has a water or air permit, they might have to look to their state environmental agency.

     For toxic waste cleanup information, they might call their regional EPA office.

     All in all, a citizen might have to navigate a maze of up to 3 dozen databases to find all of the environmental and public health information that the government has about their communities.

     One of the jobs of our new information office will be to keep improving our website. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to find the environmental information they need so they can make informed decisions about what is good for their communities.
     Already the website has become a giant step forward in providing the American people with accurate, timely information about their neighborhoods and communities that is easy to find and easy to understand.

     It is also a place where state and local officials, or business people, can get up to date reports on environmental issues or on EPA rules and regulations.

     I told you earlier that last month EPA's web page handled 9.6 million page hits. But that number has grown every month since we launched the website in 1994.

     We need to make sure that this information is presented in some type of context. Oftentimes, a set of data numbers just doesn't mean much to most people -- X number of pounds of a certain toxic chemical in the air -- Y number of pounds of a toxic chemical in the water. People need to know where the data came from, what its quality is and what conclusions they can draw from it.

     We are structuring all our information activities -- both computer-based and traditional -- to provide citizens a greater understanding of what all these complex data mean for their communities, for their health, for their families. We're doing this in partnership with our states and working closely with all of our stakeholders.

     The information age that began with a 15th Century German inventor enters the 21st Century even stronger as we've gone from Gutenberg to gigabytes.

     This Administration will never let up on its promise to ensure the public's right to know. This is information that should not be available to a privileged few. It must be available to all because knowledge is power. And people have the absolute right to know all they can about the environment that surrounds them.

     Thank you.