Energy & Environment

Setting Up a Box Score

Regulators depend on inspectors' hunches, citizens' complaints or luck to find festering pollution problems.
by | April 2004

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

One of my spring-morning pleasures is to pick up the sports pages and check out the Major League Baseball box scores. Right there, in concise black print, is a complete accounting of American and National League games played the night before. I live 600 miles from the nearest big-league ballpark, but I can track the hits, strikeouts, errors and runs scored when the Yankees play the Red Sox in Boston's Fenway Park or the Dodgers take on the Giants in Los Angeles.

That's a model government environmental agencies would do well to study. Millions of people care deeply about preventing contamination and preserving natural landscapes in the communities where they live. But a citizen can't open the newspaper, turn on the television or get on the Internet to find timely and meaningful reports--green box scores, if you like--that tell how well pollution-control programs are performing.

For 30 years, federal and state agencies have collected emissions reports from regulated facilities and checked them against inspectors' on-site findings. But too often, regulators still depend as much on inspectors' hunches, citizens' complaints or luck to find festering pollution problems. Nobody has the time to step back and look over the accumulated data--to spot hidden problems or detect disturbing trends that regulatory programs have missed.

This oversight leaves it to pollution-control agencies to quantify progress and measure performance by toting up how many inspections they've done, lawsuits they've filed and dollars in fines they've levied. Unfairly or not, the statistical void leaves officials open to attack by skeptical legislators and environmental lobbyists who interpret any decline in those bean-counting numbers as proof of regulatory backsliding.

The EPA and states have been working for years to devise more meaningful indicators to measure real-life results in cleaner water, fresher air and restored landscapes. But pollution regulators are just now beginning to think about how continuing advances in information- processing technology could assemble those numbers into timely accounts that elected officials can use to assess environmental progress and that the public at large can understand.

New Jersey, for one, has overhauled the state pollution control agency's anachronistic information system to integrate data it collects when issuing permits, conducting inspections, monitoring emissions and cracking down on violators. New Jersey once "relied on limited data and instincts to tell us where these problems were," Sherry Driber, the department's information manager, has noted. "Now we will have the data to confirm or refute these instincts, as well as pinpoint new areas of concern and focus our resources accordingly."

With state budgets so crimped, officials need to make use of all the information they can get when they decide where to concentrate regulatory efforts. Governments are now starting to deal with cumulative impacts from contaminants that still seep in drips and drabs from small-scale activities scattered across sprawling basins and watersheds. That task makes it even more essential for governments to monitor for pollutants on a frequent basis, from as many positions as feasible along a stream or within a common airshed. Just as critically, officials need to get a lot better at communicating to ordinary citizens what that testing detects. Once citizens can be confident they know what's out there, they'll be willing to help find workable solutions and trust their governments to follow through.

Outside Boston, EPA and Massachusetts have demonstrated the potential for citizen solutions by enlisting local residents in cleaning up the Lower Charles River to make it fit for swimming. Once a month since 1995, Charles River Watershed Association members have monitored pollutant levels at 37 stations along an 80-mile stretch of river, and then promptly posted the results on the Internet. Their data have uncovered clues that led to the discovery of illegal hookups and clogged pipes that spilled sewage into the Charles. The running statistics also confirm that stormwater runoff after heavy rainstorms remains the most serious source of matter that's still befouling the river. The association makes its message even more visible by flying flags from Charles River boathouses: The flags let everyone know whether the water is clean enough that day for swimming.

Shelley Metzenbaum, the Environmental Compliance Consortium's director, says the Charles River venture shows what government can accomplish by setting a clear environmental performance objective, then providing the public "with credible, fresh and frequent measurement of progress toward the goal." For well over a century, baseball has been compiling tatistics, game by game and season after season, and disseminating them overnight in a consistent and comprehensible form. Surely pollution regulators could account for environmental quality just as well.


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