Expert Commentary

Environmental Due Diligence: The Information Is Everywhere!

The Internet is an amazing source for environmental information on air, water, and land use and abuse. websites can be used collectively to secure credible and valuable information for use in property transactions and construction projects, and by concerned citizens, insurance companies, and lending institutions.

May 2003

Living in the "information age" or electronic age, there is a tremendous amount of information at our fingertips, quite literally. Whether you know it or not, volumes of environmental information is offered to us through various Internet sites, albeit, caution must be exercised when using such information. Therefore, it's important to stick to sites considered credible. The one site with considerable credibility has to be the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For those cynics, just play along with me.

Through the EPA site, you can find a variety of information with only a zip code. In a fairly short timeframe, you could have names of federally regulated facilities that have compliance issues or that have had agencies apply violations to the facilities’ permits. You could have information on all the National Priority List (NPL) sites, also known as "Superfund" sites, within a specific zip code.

I see three major benefits to these sites. One, the Internet sites are maintained by the government (once again, to the critics, bear with me). That is a good thing—even the links listed on the EPA site. Two, the information could be obtained in seconds, literally. Three, and the best of all, it's free!

One of the sites that is getting some recent recognition is the ECHO site. The EPA has established ECHO, or Enforcement and Compliance History Online, to provide the public with compliance and enforcement information for approximately 800,000 EPA-permitted facilities nationwide. Such information includes permit, inspection, violation, enforcement action, and penalty information about various facilities in a specific area. This website allows you to search for facilities in a targeted area for the purpose of determining whether:

  • EPA or state/local governments have conducted compliance inspections,
  • violations were detected, or
  • enforcement actions were taken and penalties assessed in response to environmental law violations.

The ECHO site is quite simple to use. Your zip code of interest is requested and in one step the various facilities in that zip code that fall under the above criteria are listed. Keep in mind the search is not all-inclusive; rather, it only includes the following EPA data sources.

  • Clean Air Act data
  • Clean Water Act data
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery data
  • Enforcement information

The information on enforcement is pulled from multiple statutes. Enforcement actions are listed that have been taken against the facility under one of its permits. Useful information is provided like the referenced statute, source ID, type of action, lead agency, and so forth. This is enough information to enable any interested party to pose appropriate questions to the proper agency.

ECHO is just one of many however. Other useful sites are listed below (all have been easily reprinted from the EPA website).

EPA Sector Facility Indexing Project: Provides detailed compliance and release data for 6 sectors (iron and steel, pulp mills, automobile assembly, non-ferrous metals, petroleum refining, and federal facilities).

EPA EnviroFacts Warehouse: Allows basic searching for facility-level information in multiple databases.

TRI Explorer: Provides Web-based search and analysis functions for the Toxics Release Inventory data set.

National Response Center Spill Search: Online "standard report" search for chemical and oil spills reported to the National Response Center.

AIRSWeb: View air pollutant release data.

ORE Enforcement Alert: Is a new informational newsletter published by the Office of Regulatory Enforcement that informs that educates the public and regulated community of important environmental enforcement issues, recent trends, and significant enforcement actions.

EPA Surf Your Watershed: Office of Water website lists information on watershed quality.

Securities and Exchange Commission (EDGAR): Use this site to find corporate disclosures of environmental liability information, and to verify that EPA sanctions over $100,000 have been reported to SEC.

FreeEDGAR: Allows you to perform text searches into SEC documents to look for corporate information. Provides more functionality than the Securities and Exchange Commission site.

EPA's Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators: View EPA environmental indicator data aggregated nationally or by state, county, or zip code based on the TRI-based risk screening model that OECA has adopted for enforcement targeting.

OECA Data Systems and Models: Provides descriptions and links to searchable databases and models used by OECA.

EPA EnviroMapper: Maps several types of environmental information, including drinking water, toxic and air releases, hazardous waste, water discharge permits, and Superfund sites.

National Atlas of the United States: Interactive maps with environmental, biological, geological, and demographic layers.

OSHA Statistics and Data: Access search tools that locate OSHA inspections conducted within a particular establishment or within a particular industry group.

EPA's Substance Registry System: SRS now links to other databases on the basis of chemical identity. Search results include Nomenclature, Synonyms in EPA, Regulations in EPA, Data Sources, and Links.

AIRNow:The AIRNow website has four primary areas: Ozone Maps, Air Quality Forecasts, Where I Live, and Publications.

GeoCommunicator: This site is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. It provides a series of map themes and search tools focused on land use.

FirstGov Environmental Links: Source of links to government sponsored environmental sites.

Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Homepage

Office of Water Total Maximum Daily Load Program: Shows 303(d) listed waters, and impairment causes in an interactive mapping platform.

Office of Water Drinking Water Data in SDWIS/FED: Information on water systems; violations reported by violation type and by contaminant/rule, and GPRA data for each year since 1993; and current Envirofacts data.

National Coastal Condition Report:The Report compiles several available data sets from different agencies and areas of the country and summarizes them to present a broad baseline picture of the condition of coastal waters.

Window to My Environment: A Web-based tool that provides a wide range of federal, state, and local information about environmental conditions and features in an area of your choice. This application is provided by the U.S. EPA in partnership with federal, state, and local governments and other organizations

The above websites can be used collectively to secure credible and valuable information. They have various uses, and some of the major uses are identified below.

  • Property transactions. Any party to a deal could use these resources as a check to qualify properties quickly and cost effectively.
  • Construction projects. General contractors could utilize ECHO to also quantify risk at proposed project sites. It may raise red flags that the general contractor could raise with the owner.
  • Concerned citizen. Obviously, anyone can input their own address or zip code to identify such sites that may be near their neighborhood.
  • Insurance companies. Environmental insurers could utilize this information as part of their overall risk assessment in the underwriting process. This could apply to various site policies as well contractors pollution policies.
  • Lending institutions. Banks and other lenders could utilize this information to identify potential financial risk associated with environmental issues.

As with anything in life, you get what you pay for. So, you must consider the cost of this resource: nothing. Some data may not be as up to date or as accurate as one would wish; nonetheless, spending some time on the site and familiarizing yourself with its value is probably a good first step.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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