Bad Data in EPA Databases Result in Bad Policy

Published November 1, 2005

For more than three decades, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has forced the U.S. business community to spend tens of billions of dollars unnecessarily in addressing what may be phantom risks. These “risks” are generated when faulty EPA databases are used in making decisions regarding such things as how to clean up Superfund sites, prepare risk assessments, determine which chemicals can be put in communities, clean up PCB in river sediments, deal with MTBE in groundwater, and resolve natural resource damage claims.

Database Trumps Truth

The root cause of the problem is regulatory decision-making driven by risk assessments based on faulty physical chemical property data disseminated by EPA. The problem arises when someone, often an EPA staffer, assigns an incorrect value or more than one value to the same property of a chemical listed in various databases. The chemical property value used in policy development is thus determined by whatever database is consulted, not by the chemical’s correct value.

This situation benefits nobody. Having to spend more money than is truly needed to address an environmental problem leaves less money available to address other significant issues, such as health care or pensions, or even the identification of more serious health and safety issues. That is a poor way to ensure environmental protection. Mandating the use of data that are of poor quality also undercuts confidence in government agencies.

Moreover, while it is difficult to imagine that anyone, in government or business, would continue to use poor-quality data once informed of a problem, EPA has so far failed to address this matter even though it has been directly brought to its attention, including the identification of specific chemical inconsistencies in its databases.

Scientists Seek Improvement

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is leading an effort to raise awareness of the problem and seek its correction.

The physical chemical data at issue are resident in databases and/or generated by models disseminated by EPA. Much of the data are faulty and, in some instances, egregiously so.

The problem was first reported by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), an arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Their analysis of physical chemical property data for the pesticide DDT and its metabolite DDE revealed the data are so bad they cannot be used to assess how these chemicals distribute in the environment. The USGS scientists attributed the data problem to EPA’s failure to critically assess and assure data reliability.

Subsequently, a scientist at Eastman Kodak evaluated thousands of physical chemical property data entries for many chemicals identified in databases and models disseminated by EPA. That evaluation revealed much of the disseminated data are unreliable. There are inconsistencies among the databases and models and the individual data entries are of uncertain quality. (See “Addressing Data Conundrums,” this page.)

The U.S. Chamber noted all these findings and verified them through Cambridge Environmental, a company that has strong expertise in performing such data evaluations. Having confirmed the problem is real, the U.S. Chamber on May 26, 2004 filed with EPA a Data Quality Act (DQA) Request for Correction of the faulty data. The DQA provides a mechanism for stakeholders to submit requests for correction of faulty data disseminated by federal government agencies.

EPA Slow in Responding

On January 12, 2005, in response to the U.S. Chamber’s data correction request, EPA largely dismissed the group’s concerns, asserting, for example, that it had transferred the copyright for the data, or that it placed a disclaimer on the data, or that it is up to the user, not EPA, to verify the correctness of data the government mandates using when performing a risk assessment.

On April 11, 2005, the U.S. Chamber responded by filing a request with EPA for reconsideration of its correction request, asking EPA to assemble an intergovernmental task force of federal agencies to address the issue. Many federal agencies rely on the disseminated data in establishing their chemical management policy positions. EPA’s response was due on July 15, 2005, but it has since requested several extensions.

In the interim, scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Environmental Science and Technology and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology–two highly respected science organizations–have submitted third-party communications to EPA in support of the U.S. Chamber’s contentions that EPA is disseminating faulty data.

Whether EPA will adequately address the data quality issues raised by the U.S. Chamber and others remains to be seen. The U.S. Chamber contends that by working together, federal agencies might reach agreement on measures that can be undertaken to harmonize and improve the reliability of data used for regulatory purposes.

Improvement of the disseminated data could save business and industry many hundreds of millions and possibly billions of dollars in complying with environmental protection requirements. Using good quality data will also enhance EPA’s reputation. Properly addressing health and safety issues requires the highest-quality data.

William L. Kovacs ([email protected]) is vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Environment, Technology, and Regulatory Affairs Division.

For more information …

Further information on the data quality issue is available on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Web site at