The U.S. EPA recently built a tool to help people find the chemicals polluting nearby waterways.
It uses information from annual EPA monitoring reports and presents top 10 lists to determine which pollutants or polluters cause the greatest harm.
People can search by city, state, watershed, industry or pollutant.
“It was pretty easy to figure out,” Rita Chapman, the clean water program director for the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter, said after recently giving it a try. “Everything had hotlinks on it, so if you didn’t know what chlorine was used for, you could click on it and it would probably tell you why it’s on there.”
But while the tool may be user-friendly, Chapman said most people outside the scientific community would overlook it. “Unless somebody is really interested, they’re probably not just going to generally look it up.”
Jeff Kart, a long time environmental reporter who blogs at MrGreatLakes.com, agrees that there is room for improvement.
“This is one of the problems I see with public agencies and transparency,” Kart said. “They can release everything and anything as far as data goes. But accessing and using and making sense of that data is another thing.”
Not only is this tool easy to miss for those who don’t frequent the EPA’s website, the data comes from the industries doing the polluting.
“Under the Federal Clean Water Act, industrial facilities and sewage treatment plants are required to get a permit in order to discharge,” said Carey Johnston, EPA’s lead developer of the tool. “These permits require facilities to sample their wastewater, analyze the pollutants they are discharging, and report these results to states or EPA.”
The system isn’t foolproof. Although each state is supposed to review this information, it’s unknown if industries give accurate reports, Chapman said. The amount of water data necessary to ensure that all of these permit holders are staying in the limits of the law would most likely be overwhelming for states.
And some industries do not report their water pollution at all. Though there are more than 200 industrial-sized livestock operations in Michigan, the tool doesn’t include their discharges to land and water, said Chapman, who focuses on industrial farming issues.
Still, Kart believes some data is better than none. “I think tools like this are beneficial in that they can help people realize all of the gunk that’s discharged to our waters,” said Kart, who is from Bay City, Mich. “We get our drinking water from the Saginaw Bay. We’re drinking this. If we’re not, we’re paying a lot of money to clean it up via wastewater treatment plants. And some of the methods and chemicals used for treatment can create new problems.”
The EPA will continue to improve the tool and solicit feedback for improvements Johnston said.