EPA progresses on online public-comment project

The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that it is progressing on a project to put online proposed rulemaking initiatives from its office and other government partners, noting that it is addressing privacy advocates' concerns about the Web site.

As part of the President's Management Agenda, the agency's Office of Environmental Information is spearheading the site Regulations.gov, which launched in January 2003, but EPA officials expect to unveil a revamped version in January 2005. Individuals or businesses can access the site dedicated to electronically processing public comments on pending federal rules.

The site is being designed to allow users to access and search all publicly available regulatory material like Federal Register notices and rules, supporting analysis and public comments. The agency will conduct a testing phase this fall to determine usability.

Organizations like the California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation have expressed concern that Regulations.gov would be able to track user activity, Rick Otis, deputy assistant administrator for EPA's environmental information office, said at a forum in Washington.

But he said the EPA made a "conscious decision" not to require identifying information. The decision was made partly because some people might fear government retribution if they criticize a federal program. "Privacy pervades a lot of what we do," he said. "It's not a small topic."

In developing the site model, the agency had to consider varying levels of electronic sophistication at different agencies and the desire that "no agency lose the functional capabilities they already have," Otis said. The testing phase, therefore, will include an opportunity to "go through each agency to assess" how ready they are to participate. Currently, there are 12 agencies or departments and the EPA participating.

Officials also are pondering whether to include documents other than rulemaking. "It's perfectly plausible to put something other than proposed rules [on the site], but do you confuse the user?" Otis asked. He suggested possibly using different color schemes for the various documents but said it is still something EPA has to "wrestle with over time as demand starts to grow."

EPA also might consider more sophisticated e-mail tracking capabilities. Sending rulemaking responses based on geospatial information is "something we may try to do," Otis said.

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