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EPA plans to end its online archive

EPA plans to end its online archive

Come July, the EPA is planning to phase out the archive containing old news releases, policy changes, regulatory actions, and more. Advocates say these are important public resources, but federal guidelines for maintaining public records are still lacking when it comes to protecting digital assets.

“Web services are now the language of the government, [but] we are not treating it with the same respect that we are paper documents,” says Gretchen Gehrke, one of the co-founders of the group, which was initially a Came along to stop the Trump administration from destroying environmental data. The group, called the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), is still fighting for public access to resources such as the EPA's online archive.

Collection is the only comprehensive way that public information about agency policies, such as fact sheets breaking down the impact of environmental legislation, and actions, such as how the agency enforces those laws, has been preserved, Gehrke says. This makes the collection important for understanding how regulation and enforcement have changed over the years. It also reflects how the agency's understanding of an issue such as climate change has evolved. And even when the Trump administration removed information about climate change on the EPA's website, much of it could still be found on the archive. Furthermore, Gehrke says the material should only be available on principle because it is public information, paid for by taxpayer dollars.

Chris Sellers, another EDGI member and Stony Brook University history professor, says, "It's very disturbing that the Biden administration would be doing exactly the same things we were concerned about under Trump." The default attitude still seems to be, he says, "if it's digital, you can toss it."

The archive was never designed to be a permanent repository of content, and maintaining the old site was no longer "cost-effective," the EPA said in an emailed statement to The Verge. The EPA announced the retirement earlier this year, after completing an overhaul of its main website in 2021, but said it was years to decide. The agency says it is following federal rules for records management and that not all webpages qualify as official records that need to be protected.

The collection was definitely not perfect. "It's not very user-friendly," Gehrke says. For example, you can't search by date to help narrow down results from archives of decades. And some pages in the archives link to inactive URLs. But Gehrke wants the collection to be better built rather than destroyed.

The EPA says it plans to move most of the information to other locations. Older news releases will go to the current EPA website page for press releases. When it comes to the rest of the content, the EPA has a case-by-case decision-making process for what content can be removed -- and what's relevant enough to warrant a visit to a modern website. Some material may be deemed important enough to be included in the National Archives. Through the Freedom of Information Act, the public will be able to request that content.

However, this does not necessarily solve the problem of making the information easier to find.

The EPA appears to be working to expand the reach of its records in other areas. This week, the EPA unveiled a new tool that aims to better inform the public about violations of environmental regulations. This tool allows people to sign up for weekly emails with a list of violations in their local area. This is something EDGI has advocated for years to make it easier for communities to protect themselves from pollutants.

"It's about time," says the seller. Before the tool went live, people could choose to check a webpage maintained by the EPA for enforcement and compliance history. But the records on Page's search tool go back only a few years. Plus, Sellers says on the EPA's website, "It's really hard to find things."

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