Federal Toxic Pollution Website Down for Months, Leaving Eco-Groups in the Dark

2014 731 tox swEvery day in the United States, toxic pollutants from industrial facilities like petrochemical plants, mines and oil drilling fields are illegally released into the environment. (Photo: AFGE / Flickr)With a federal website listing thousands of toxic pollution reports scrapped due to a security breach, environmental watchdogs are without a crucial tool for holding polluters and government regulators accountable.

The federal website that hosted a searchable database of thousands of toxic pollution reports has been offline since it suffered a security breach in February, leaving environmental watchdog groups without a crucial tool for tracking pollution and holding polluters accountable.

Every day in the United States, toxic pollutants from industrial facilities like petrochemical plants, mines and oil drilling fields are illegally released into the environment. Whether it’s a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or a few dozen gallons of diesel from a leaking truck, polluters are required to report the incidents to the National Response Center (NRC), which is operated by the Coast Guard under the Department of Homeland Security.

The NRC receives hundreds, sometimes thousands of these initial pollution reports every month and relays them to relevant state and federal agencies, which typically respond to major releases and blatant permit violations, when they respond at all. Many of the reports are simply kept on file and may never be officially investigated and confirmed.

Until early 2014, the NRC kept a searchable database of the pollution reports on a public website. Smell a strange odor coming from the power plant down the street? You could search the NRC website and find out if the plant recently reported any accidental air pollution and even file your own report. The plant’s operator and its regulators may or may not do anything about it, but at least you would have a better idea of what is in the air and who to complain about.

In February, an “unauthorized third party” hacked into the NRC’s web server, according to NRC spokesman Andrew Kennedy. The NRC attempted to increase security but ended up scrapping the website, which hasn’t changed much since it was launched in 1996.

“It was outdated anyway,” Kennedy told Truthout.

The NRC is now rebuilding the site from scratch, with no definitive timeline for launching a new service. Kennedy said the NRC has a small team of about 20 employees and a limited budget, so meeting new federal security standards for government websites is a challenge.

Eco-Groups Left in the Dark

From February until June, NRC reports were only being released to government agencies and Freedom of Information Act requesters. Now the NRC is updating massive spreadsheets of reports on a weekly basis and posting them online, but Kennedy admits that the giant, clunky spreadsheets are not as “user friendly” as the original website. (The files are so large that this reporter’s computer was unable to open the 2014 spreadsheet.)

Environmental groups that relied on the searchable database are now scrambling to adjust to the new system.

“It’s basically crippled a delivery system we had built to specifically take all the pollution reports to the NRC, and we had been delivering that to anyone that subscribed to that on a daily basis,” said David Manthos, communications director for SkyTruth, an environmental watchdog group that uses remote imaging and satellite technology to locate and track pollution in the United States and across the world.

Groups like the Right to Know Network and SkyTruth created programs that automatically collected and sorted data from the now defunct NRC website. SkyTruth even placed NRC alerts on a map that, until February, was covered in red dots indicating where pollution had been reported across the country. Now, the map is nearly empty except for small clusters of reports in a few states where state regulatory agencies release information about oil and gas drilling.

NRC reports are often sparse and based on estimates made by operators and eyewitnesses. By enhancing the NRC’s raw data with their own tools, environmentalists used to be able to identify repeat offenders, locate impacted areas and even match pollutants to symptoms, odors and eyewitness accounts reported by people living near industrial facilities.

Mapping NRC alerts allowed SkyTruth and its subscribers to paint a bigger picture of the impact that pollution has on people and the environment, even when the government fails to respond.

“I’ve found [oil] leaks that I reported [to the NRC] and went out the very next week, and it’s still leaking,” said Jonathan Henderson, who tracks oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico for the environmental watchdog group Gulf Restoration Network.

Henderson, SkyTruth and the Gulf Restoration Network are members of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, a coalition of watchdogs that formed in 2011 after the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico revealed that the official channels for reporting and cleaning up pollution relied heavily on the polluters themselves. During the early days of the BP disaster, SkyTruth made headlines when the group accurately estimated the size of the spill to be 20 times larger than estimates released by BP and the Coast Guard.

Manthos said that, without the NRC’s website, the Gulf Monitoring Consortium “is going blind.” The NRC’s massive spreadsheets, he said, are too opaque.

“When you have a high-volume area that has a lot of spills like the Gulf, you don’t jump when a NRC report comes in because there are dozens coming in,” Manthos said. “If you can’t easily skim through that and see what’s going on, stuff starts falling through the cracks.”

Henderson said the consortium has lost “a very critical tool in our watchdogging efforts.” Henderson used to get an email once a day from SkyTruth that listed all of the NRC reports from the Gulf of Mexico region, but these emails no longer come in.

“I could look at the details in each report, including the location and reported amount of material released, be it oil or some other toxic or hazardous substance,” Henderson said. “That information is very helpful when making a decision whether to hop on a plane or boat and go investigate, or whether I should contact any of the various agencies charged with responding, to get more information.”

NRC reports also list the federal and state agencies that received copies of the reports, allowing Henderson and other watchdogs to make sure that regulators and first responders are investigating pollution incidents and holding polluters accountable.

A Breach of Homeland Security

Henderson is frustrated that a website operated by the Department of Homeland Security could become obsolete after being compromised by a hacker, a fact about which the NRC was not initially upfront.

The NRC initially stated in February that the website was taken down “for maintenance.” On June 27, Henderson and other frequent NRC users received emails obtained by Truthout indicating that the NRC server had been “compromised on or about February 21, 2014.” While there was no evidence that personal information had been stolen, the NRC suggested that frequent users take steps to safeguard their email accounts.

“It’s embarrassing that Homeland Security’s reporting system was vulnerable to an attack like that,” Henderson said.

Kennedy said there is no specific timeline for getting another searchable database online. In the meantime, the NRC will stick to its core mission of relaying reports to first responders and environmental agencies. The searchable database, he said, was a nice tool for journalists and eco-groups, but not a federally mandated requirement.

“There is a desire to make [the reporting system] more robust, but it’s really just a funding issue at this point,” Kennedy told Truthout.

Henderson wonders why the Department of Homeland Security can’t afford to fix a website that has become so important for protecting the environment on the home front.

“We spend all this money abroad, but we can’t fund this website that is basic homeland security,” Henderson said. “The work that the Gulf Monitoring Consortium does is homeland security.”