The internet is such a powerful tool! Data is easy to find, query and use from the comfort of your desk. That also means that it is easy for almost anyone to access our information; so it's important to exercise caution and manage the information you put out there as actively as possible. In addition to your personal information being more readily accessible, your business information is as well. This includes the environmental compliance data your business has on file with regulatory oversight agencies.
So What? ….A Cautionary Tale
As regulatory agencies go 'paperless', electronic reporting of compliance data is increasingly becoming the norm. This means that businesses enter compliance data directly into regulatory agency online databases so that compliance can be quickly reviewed by a regulator from his desktop. Most of these regulatory agencies no longer accept paper reports.
Regulators for many agencies, using their online databases, can readily ascertain without or in advance of a site visit, if your facility is in compliance, if you have completed the necessary requirements, provided the right information or data, and if your business is meeting compliance deadlines or thresholds. The use of on-line databases will allow a regulator to review many more businesses for compliance than using paper reports and site visits to do so. This improves regulatory efficiency, allowing a regulator to review far more information than before.
Online electronic compliance database provides a single place for each agencies compliance data – readily accessible. Regulatory agencies are required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and unless proprietary or a safety (terrorism) risk (such as maps showing natural gas lines or specific facility maps for ports or airports), data submitted to a regulatory agency can be obtained by the public. In the past, data was submitted in paper reports and on file at the agency. For the public to gain access, a FOIA review request was required. Unless a specific request was made regarding a business’ data or information, facility operational data remained largely confidential. Summary data was often reported to the public by the regulatory agencies to present trends or overall stakeholder compliance, but specific business or site information was not published.
With almost universal access to the web and an increase in agencies’ posting data, new issues are developing. Facility operators are frequently unaware of information that is publicly available. The data can include operational details prepared to meet compliance requirements but not intended for public use or scrutiny. The data can be downloaded by a public third party and manipulated to misrepresent a facility operation. Citizen lawsuits in which electronic data is the basis of the lawsuit are becoming more common. The data originally submitted by a facility to meet regulatory compliance requirements may subsequently be used against them as part of a lawsuit.
Protect Your Business
More care and thought needs to go into what is being reported and how it is prepared and presented to minimize the potential that this data could cause you problems down the road.
Protecting your facility from unnecessary exposure to enforcement and lawsuits requires planning and research:
Increasingly more individuals and groups are using electronic data to monitor what your facility is doing. Make sure you know what data is available and how it could be potentially used.
Call us for more information. Please contact David Renfrew (firstname.lastname@example.org), or call us at (562) 495-5777, if you would like to further understand your potential electronic exposure and how you can manage those risks.