Thursday, October 16, 2008

EPA Report

Today [Nov. 19, 2004], Karen and I attended a workshop in Chicago at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 Library. The subject was the EPA Web site or, more broadly, finding EPA information online. Our speaker was Penny Boyle, the librarian at the EPA , who is technically a contracted employee for the EPA; but she was well-versed in navigating the site and had an impressive understanding of its contents that even held up to my questioning after the lecture. The lecture itself ran over its two-hour allotment, and she did begin speaking and clicking rather fast towards the end as she tried to cram everything in. I will summarize some of her most useful tips and observations below. I have also arranged the discussion more thematically, whereas she had followed more closely the organization of the Web site. Karen is adding material to this report.

Firstly, I was impressed by her candor -- we were warned against the EPA Web site's search feature. Though much improved over just a year ago, it was still producing less relevant hits than most search engines, such as Google, could produce. She also offered a helpful tip on Google searching -- that when searching for a URL in the search bar as opposed to the URL bar, it helps to leave off the "www" at the beginning.

There are quite a few methods to search for EPA publications on the site. The site catalogs far many more documents than are available in full-text format online. Under the Information Services page, on the Welcome to the EPA Publications Source page, there are three methods of accessing EPA documents. The National Publications Catalog has 7,000 paper and electronic documents cataloged. The National Environmental Publications Internet Site (NEPIS) has even more documents, 10,000, all available electronically. The documents are not in more familiar formats like .html or .pdf, but .tif. It reminds me of LC's American Memory Web site. Then there is Publications on the EPA Site, which groups publications by subject. A lot of these documents, unfortunately, are so technical that they would go right over our patrons' heads. Another way to find publications that she showed us was under For Kids, then under Teachers' Site, where one finds Order Education Materials from EPA. It's an annotated list with the option of ordering or downloading copies. It's also possible to find Region 5 (our region)-specific publications under Finding Answers (

There are multiple places on the site where one can search by subject. Some lists are as short as six or so of the most common subjects. Quick Finder, at the top of the EPA home page, has 29 subjects -- but this list can be exploded into an alphabetical list of about 900 subject terms. Librarians at the EPA library assigned these subject terms and coded the metadata.

The EPA site can help with tracking environmental legislative history under the Laws, Regulations, and Dockets page. There are several links off-site, like for Code of Federal Regulations at GPOAccess. EPA has its own database for the Federal Register. I asked our presenter how it compared to searching Federal Register on GPOAccess. She was familiar enough with both to suggest that EPA's version is easier to search by date, while GPO's version is easier to search by subject. Most impressive. EPA has a database of environmental laws, but our presenter didn't recommend it, as it is sometimes as dated as 1990. She recommended instead the U.S. Senate Commitee on Environment & Public Work's Web site (, which is much more current. EPA Dockets, or Edockets, are collections of documentation used in crafting regulations. The EPA dockets began being collected in 2002 and contain only national, not regional, information. A related source is the Non-Binding Guidance Documents collection, or Interpretive Documents Collection, are documents from the other end of the process, enforcing the regulations. Under Regulations and Proposed Rules, under Codified Regulations, are links to all 50 states, and their environmental regulations.

On a related note, the same page has a link to a beta version of Code of Federal Regulations, or "e-CFR." It is a joint project between the Office of the Federal Register and the Government Printing Office. While not official like the paper version, it will be more frequently updated (today, on the 19th, it as current up to the 17th). The URL is Is everyone else familiar with this already?

There are ways to search for data by location, mainly via the Where You Live page. There are eight locality-oriented databases on this page that can be used to quickly look up what watersheds are in your zip code (Surf Your Watershed), the air quality over your home (Airnow), or the location of the nearest toxic waste dump to where you live (National Superfunds Sites). Envirofacts lists local businesses, what chemicals they have, and whether or not the business is in compliance with EPA laws and regulations for those substances. Window to My Environment is an interactive mapping tool that is useful for pulling together disparate information (ranging from surface water to population). However, there is no guide that explains what every feature is supposed to look like, so the more features one adds to the map, the more muddled and confusing it looks.

The For Kids section has already been mentioned. The games there are unlikely to supplant those popular with our young patrons. Supposedly, these pages were designed for children ages four and up. I'd have to put it to the Tyler test to see if that's true.

The EPA Newsroom page has a news releases archive that, I think, we're unlikely to use. It only features national, not regional, news. There is an option for receiving news releases via e-mail that might be worth considering.

There are numerous ways to contact the EPA through the Web site. Under About EPA is an employee directory. The speaker cautioned us that because she, and a number of other EPA “employees” are not truly employed by the EPA, so their names do not appear in the directory. Also under the heading About EPA is a place for citizens to voice complaints. To find the complaint section, Under About EPA, then click on “10 regional offices,” and then a map of the U.S. appears; click on region 5, and the right side of the region 5 page has several choices, and toward the bottom you will find “Contact us Online” and under that heading is “citizen complaints.” There is also an Experts List with the name and phone number for subject specialists who can answer questions on a variety of technical issues. Another source is Information Products Bulletin, under Welcome to the EPA Publications Source. The bulletin is mainly about upcoming publications, but is also handy for names and contact information. Also, the online version is more timely than the paper version of this title. Almost every page on the site has "contact us" links at the top or bottom of the page, or both. Though I don't recall her mentioning it, there is a list of hotlines one can call for more information under Hotlines and Clearinghouses.

From here, things got hectic as time began running out on the presentation. The following were databases on the site she felt important enough to warrant mention. Index to EPA Test Methods is, true to its name, an index only. Some methods are online, but others are still available only in paper copy from the EPA libraries. The ECOTOX database deals with how chemicals and toxins affect plants and animals. IRIS, on the other hand, deals with the health effects of particular environmental hazards on humans. And my personal favorite, SoR -- Systems of Registries -- that includes the SRS-Substance Registry System, explains which law a certain substance is regulated under. The speaker also outlined a special section on the EPA website to aid librarians (we need all the help we can get!) in finding what we need. The address is The tan handout does an outstanding job of giving a brief description of each section, and what it contains.

Now armed with all of this awesome EPA information, all we need are patrons who care enough about our environment to ask!

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