|A registration database of transformers using banned PCBs is an example of resources accessible through a vast EPA data portal. Above, power transformer west of Altoona, Pennsylvania, with a warning label indicating that it contains PCBs. Photo: Sturmovik, Wikimedia Commons (GNU FDL).|
Reporter’s Toolbox: Data Bazaar at the EPA’s Environmental Dataset Gateway
By Joseph A. Davis
You may have heard Toolbox call the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the Saudi Arabia of data, with its vast resources.
It may be more fitting to call it the Mideast of data — with its checkered history of endless warfare, as control of EPA data alternates between administrations dedicated to informing the public about the environment and those hostile to public data.
In either case, if you are an environmental data journalist looking for new or out-of-the-way ideas, make sure you explore the EPA’s Environmental Dataset Gateway.
Hidden alleys leading to story ideas
Stretching our earlier analogy, the Environmental Dataset Gateway, or EDG, could be likened to a bazaar or souk of EPA data. You will find amazing things there.
The EDG isn’t trying to be global and integrated.
It has odd little stalls in hidden alleys —
any one of which could reveal a story idea.
Unlike the EPA’s Envirofacts Data Warehouse (which we’ve written about before, here), the EDG isn’t trying to be global and integrated. It has odd little stalls in hidden alleys — any one of which could reveal a story idea.
Almost everything on the EDG is downloadable … in a technical sense. But you may well have to download the data file via FTP from a faceless server. The databases are well-documented, with attention to metadata. Helpfully, they often include the name of an EPA contact person.
But be aware that because of the EPA’s checkered data history, not everything is current or up to date.
How to use the data smartly
Here are a few examples of data-related topics that can be explored via the EDG, to inspire your reporting.
- PCB transformer registrations: Polychlorinated biphenyls are a long-lived and toxic family of chemicals that were once used for many products — especially in electric transformers (like the ones on the light poles). The transformers were outlawed in the United States in the late 1970s, but because of their longevity, many are still in use. When they overheat and blow up, they make a toxic mess. The EPA once required PCB transformers to be registered and still has the database of these registrations. Is there one on your street?
- U.S. precipitation, 1901–2020: This map-formatted database tells you the rain and snow trends over more than a century of modern climate change in the United States. It also gives you the changes state by state. It is perhaps typical that you have to download the legend separately.
- Consumer product category database: We always hear about how there are some 40,000 chemicals in commerce. This database categorizes them. The data you can immediately access from EDG is not that helpful, however, but it reminds you to look in places where you can find it. What you may really want is the EPA’s CPDat (Chemical and Products Database). And the best way to access that may be through the CompTox Dashboard.
- Average rate of heat-related hospitalizations in 23 states, 2001-2010: Some people say heat illnesses are the real health impact of climate change. Possibly so. This data gives you a hard-facts foundation during the modern era of climate change, state by state. But again, if you are chasing climate impacts data, you might better start looking at this indicators resource page.
All that is just a beginning. Remember, for journalists, being stubborn and curious is even more important than being smart. Poke around on the Data.gov site too.
But as you browse through EDG, you may be intrigued by data on EPA grants, environmental justice grants, brownfields grants, radiological incidents the EPA has handled, confined animal feeding operations (don’t get your hopes up) or the EPA’s “Community Actions Tracker.”
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 20. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.