National Response Center’s Database of Spills and Accidents “Down for Maintenance”
by Sofia Plagakis, 3/20/2014
For almost a month, the National Response Center’s national database of spills and accidents of oil and hazardous substances has been offline “for maintenance,” but the public and companies can still submit reports of any spills and accidents by phone at 1-800-424-8802. The public can also receive the data via a Freedom of Information Act request.
While occasional website outages for maintenance have become a necessary reality, it is disappointing that the National Response Center’s (NRC) website does not provide any real explanation or a specific date when the database will be fully functional again. However, in a statement given to Skytruth (a West Virginia-based group that uses remote-sensing and digital mapping technologies) on March 6, the NRC provides more details:
The NRC website was taken down on February 21st. During the restoration process, the NRC was required to comply with new DOD/DHS cyber security requirements. The NRC will bring a new website online to meet these requirements, though it is an arduous process and taking longer than originally anticipated. The website will be brought back online in a stepped fashion beginning with publishing static pages within the next two weeks. The NRC report query tool and web reporting tool will not be immediately available, though we hope to have full website functionality no later than the end of May. In the meantime, we are looking at other intra-governmental websites that may be able to host our FOIA data until our main site is finished.
Located at U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, NRC is the national communications center focused on handling emergency response activities. The database contains information on toxic chemical spills and other accidents reported to various agencies, including the NRC, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regions, and the U.S. Coast Guard. The data is often used to analyze reports of releases, support emergency planning efforts, and assist decision makers in developing spill prevention programs.
Incidents reported in this database range from minor to serious, from an oil sheen on water to a release of thousands of gallons. This database can be used to find information about the material and the quantity released, where and when the spill/release occurred, what agencies have been notified, and any information about property damage, injuries, and deaths occurring due to the release. The reports can be extensive but are also known to be incomplete, as many incidents are never reported, and those that are reported generally are not subject to verification or not updated.
Although the public can receive the data via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by e-mailing EFOIA@uscg.mil, the NRC website notes that “responses will be processed in accordance with the normal FOIA timeline.” This is an unacceptable replacement for instant online access, as the normal FOIA timeline often takes a month or more. NRC should either expedite processing of these requests or, as mentioned in the NRC’s statement, find another website to host the data. We suggest www.data.gov as one possibility.
It is ironic that the government website is down during Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of government openness and transparency, held from March 16-22. Although we understand the importance of installing security measures for online databases, we hope that the data is restored in full sooner than the current projection of three months. Also, we recommend the NRC inform the public about the process in a more transparent fashion with updates on the website.
In the meantime, the public can also use our Right-to-Know database (www.rtknet.org) to access NRC’s spills and accidents data. Our database is updated as of January 2013 and includes incidents from 1982 through 2012. We hope to update our database with the most current data as soon as we receive it from NRC.