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The EPA plans to sunset its online archive

Digital records need to be better protected, experts say

In this photo illustration the Environmental Protection...
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) logo seen displayed on a smartphone.
Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Come July, the EPA plans to retire the archive containing old news releases, policy changes, regulatory actions, and more. Those are important public resources, advocates say, but federal guidelines for maintaining public records still fall short when it comes to protecting digital assets.

“Web services is the language of the government now, [but] we’re not treating it with the same sort of respect that we are paper documents,” says Gretchen Gehrke, one of the co-founders of a group that initially came together to prevent the Trump administration from destroying environmental data. The group, called Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), is still fighting for public access to resources like the EPA’s online archive.

The archive is the only comprehensive way that public information about agency policies, like fact sheets breaking down the impact of environmental legislation, and actions, like how the agency implements those laws, have been preserved, Gehrke says. That makes the archive vital for understanding how regulation and enforcement have changed over the years. It also shows how the agency’s understanding of an issue, like climate change, has evolved. And when the Trump administration deleted information about climate change on the EPA’s website, much of it could still be found on the archive. Besides that, Gehrke says the content should just be available on principle because it’s public information, paid for by taxpayer dollars.

“It’s pretty disturbing that the Biden administration would actually be doing some of the same stuff that we worried about under Trump,” says Chris Sellers, another EDGI member and a history professor at Stony Brook University. The default attitude still seems to be, he says, that “if it’s digital, you can toss it.”

The archive was never built to be a permanent repository of content, and maintaining the outdated site was no longer “cost effective,” the EPA said to The Verge in an emailed statement. The EPA announced the retirement early this year, after finishing an overhaul of its main website in 2021, but says that the decision was years in the making. The agency maintains that it’s abiding by federal rules for records management and that not all webpages qualify as official records that need to be preserved.

The archive certainly wasn’t perfect. “It’s not very user-friendly,” Gehrke says. You can’t search by date, for example, to help you whittle down results from decades of archives. And some pages in the archives link to defunct URLs. But Gehrke would like to see the archive improved rather than dismantled.

The EPA says it plans to migrate much of the information to other places. Old news releases will go to the current EPA website’s page for press releases. When it comes to the rest of the content, the EPA has a process for making case-by-case decisions on what content can be deleted — and what is relevant enough to move to the modern website. Some content might be deemed important enough to join the National Archives. The public will be able to request that content through the​​ Freedom of Information Act.

That, however, doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of making the information easy to find.

The EPA does seem to be working towards increasing accessibility of its records in other areas. This week, the EPA unveiled a new tool aimed at keeping the public better informed of violations against environmental regulations. The tool allows people to sign up for weekly emails with a rundown of infractions in their local area. It’s something EDGI has also advocated for for years to make it easier for communities to protect themselves from polluters.

“It’s about time,” Sellers says. Before the tool went live, people could opt to check a webpage the EPA maintains for enforcement and compliance history. But records on the page’s search tool only go back a few years. Plus, Sellers says, on the EPA’s website, “it’s really hard to find things.”