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April 13, 2007

Clearing Up Murky Data on Toxics

In case you were sitting with your nose to the monitor all afternoon yesterday waiting for your daily fix of TNS original news coverage… so were we. Sorry about that.

We originally had a story ready to go on the Environmental Working Group’s analysis of "hidden" toxic waste in California under a new set of EPA reporting regulations. But we ended up changing our story – both our coverage of it and the subject matter itself – upon realizing that the EWG’s report contained a serious data error. Their original estimates were based on an earlier version of the EPA’s new Toxics Release Inventory reporting regulations.

The EPA amended the draft rules last year, lowering a key threshold that would trigger detailed reporting of toxic releases. I originally brought this up in my interview with an EWG staffer, but was reassured that the data was current and valid. But hours later, after two rounds of edits and factchecking, I still felt uneasy about it, noting that the EWG’s data tables indicated a completely different reporting year and different threshold figures than the text of the report. I mulled it over and continued to bug EWG’s Washington, DC and West Coast branches by phone and email, asking for confirmation on the figures. Finally, I received a call the next morning notifying me that EWG had indeed botched its calculations, and their analysts would straighten out the report over the next few hours. This was followed by a thank-you for "saving our butts" – which was refreshing, as I sometimes wonder if anyone out there appreciates the neurotic attentiveness to accuracy that this job instills.

The report vanished from the EWG website until late that afternoon, when it reappeared in somewhat leaner form. The original estimate of 1.1 million pounds of underreported toxic waste had shed more than 500,000 pounds, and the count of facilities affected by the new rule had been trimmed down significantly. The new version is less dire-looking to be sure, but at least the advocates at EWG can offset the embarrassment with a marginally brighter outlook for toxics reporting in the state.

As for us, we think the story was well worth the wait: how often do we get to change the news as we report on it?


Joel Huberman: Nice job

Nice job, Michelle. That "neurotic attention to detail" is important even when it doesn't result in changing the news!

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.