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ELI Maps Out Legal Roadblocks to Electronic Reporting of Environmental Data

February 2000

EPA is preparing to join the fast lane of the Information Super Highway. Hot on the heels of its success with electronically submitted reports for the Toxic Release Inventory, EPA is working on a proposal to adopt electronic discharge monitoring reports. However, environmental enforcers are finding that moving to the ease and efficiency of electronic reports may be impeded by a some new legal hurdles.

“The Justice Department, state prosecutors and other enforcers are justifiably very concerned about how they can continue to achieve successful prosecutions if they use electronic reports because they won’t have a paper document to show to a judge or jury,” said Suellen Keiner, Director of ELI’s Program on Environmental Governance and Management. “For the past thirty years, our environmental enforcement has relied upon paper reporting, and many of the environmental enforcement cases have used paper reports as key evidence of excess emissions.”

ELI has just published two research reports looking at the legal implications of adopting electronic reporting. From Pens to Bytes: Summaries of Court Decisions Related to Electronic Reporting encapsulates 43 federal and state court decisions on environmental data. The cases are grouped into categories: decisions based on paper reports, electronic data treated as writing or signature, admissibility of electronic data in state and federal cases, and false statements and other types of electronic fraud.

The second report is the proceedings from ELI’s Symposium on Legal Implications of Environmental Electronic Reporting, a three-day meeting conducted with support from EPA. The report summarizes panel and group discussions, as well as remarks of keynote speakers Joseph Retzer, from EPA’s Office of Environmental Information, and James Simon, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division. Symposium participants included state and federal officials, managers from regulated industries and technology firms, and representatives from private law firms and environmental groups. This diverse group, who discussed the complex legal and technical issues involved in adopting electronic reporting for environmental data, agreed that electronic reporting offers many potential improvements such as reducing administrative burdens, making data more timely and accurate, increasing public access to information.

“Electronic reporting of environmental data is likely to produce many gains that will outweigh some of the legal risks,” Keiner said. “These benefits include including greater credibility for regulated industries, a more level playing field among regulated entities, more timely and accurate information available to the public, and more positive collaboration between state environmental agencies and EPA.”

Print copies of From Pens to Bytes: Summaries of Court Decisions Related to Electronic Reporting can be ordered by calling (800) 433-5120 or by sending an email to orders@eli.org. For press copies, please contact pressrequest@eli.org.

Print copies of Symposium of Legal Implications of Environmental Electronic Reporting can be ordered by calling (800) 433-5120 or by sending an email to orders@eli.org. For press copies, please contact pressrequest@eli.org.