Watchdog issues rare 'alert' that EPA data on toxic substance releases inaccurate

The top watchdog overseeing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a rare "management alert" Monday warning that the agency’s public data on toxic substance releases are not accurate.

The EPA’s Office of Inspector General (IG) said the inconsistencies were “of sufficient concern to warrant immediate reporting.”

The emergency letter from the EPA’s acting IG to the head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention warned that certain information the EPA released publicly about its toxic chemical releases did not match internal EPA data.

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“As a result, the public is not receiving complete and timely information about environmental conditions affecting human health,” the letter read.

Specifically, the alert referred to missing data pertaining to releases of hazardous substances from publicly owned treatment works. The government watchdog discovered that there were substantial differences between the publicly listed data on the total number of pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment and internal data sets the EPA handed over separately to the IG.

The IG found the discrepancy while auditing the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which annually collects information about toxic chemical releases reported by both industrial and government facilities. Chemicals covered by the TRI cause cancer or other chronic human health effects.

The discrepancies the EPA found referred to releases between 2013 and 2017.

The watchdog said the discrepancy will likely be the most troubling to local communities or global researchers who use the data in their analyses.

The IG wrote that the "audit of the EPA’s TRI data is ongoing, but we found this information to be of sufficient concern to warrant immediate reporting" and asked the EPA to respond within 15 days to announce actions taken to correct the identified discrepancies.

An EPA spokesperson said the agency “developed and deployed corrections” within three business days of hearing from the IG internally.

“Additionally, EPA has determined that the glitches did not impact the recently released 2017 National Analysis,” the spokesperson said.

At least one environmental organization heavily criticized the improperly released public information.

“The TRI is the most important tool guaranteeing Americans the right to know about toxic chemical pollution in their own backyards,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

“EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler should take the inspector general’s warning seriously and move immediately to restore the integrity of the TRI,” he added.