Connolly presses EPA on air quality IT with new bill

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., wants Clean Air in the Cloud. 

That’s the name of a new bill he introduced Tuesday to prod the Environmental Protection Agency to update its legacy IT systems that store air quality data. 

The bill stems from a 2023 Government Accountability Office report on the 1990s-era systems — called the Air Quality System and AirNow — that described them as “difficult to maintain, access and use.”

EPA uses the two systems to manage and report air quality data collected by a network of over 4,000 monitoring sites that gather information about air pollutants regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act, like carbon monoxide.

The EPA both facilitates public access to that air pollution data and uses the information for its regulatory responsibilities.

Connolly’s proposal would mandate three GAO recommendations for EPA from that report: that the agency identify factors to evaluate whether its tech is ready to be replaced or retired; that it consider an operational analysis for the systems; and that it document a business case for a new IT system. 

“The federal government is only as good as the IT it utilizes,” said Connolly in a statement about the bill. “It is my hope that, with this legislation, the EPA can resolve the challenges posed by AQS and AirNow to best deliver results for the American people they serve.”

The AQS, the EPA’s main repository for ambient air quality data, is old and relies on outdated software that is difficult to maintain, GAO found, and the system is susceptible to crashes when local air monitoring agencies try to add data to it. Because of the age of its software, it’s difficult to actually access or analyze the data it contains.

AirNow is used to give the public access to current information on ozone and particulate matter. Some stakeholders reported to GAO that having multiple systems is inefficient in addition to being confusing. 

The EPA has been considering replacing the two systems with a single one, the report noted, although the agency has been hamstrung by competing priorities and resource limitations in its efforts to do that, EPA officials told GAO. 

The agency also hasn’t identified the systems as in need of replacement in recent IT management and oversight processes, the report states, or documented a business case to get management approval for the project.

Connolly’s bill would codify the three recommendations from that GAO report. 

EPA agreed with two of the recommendations, but disagreed with a call for its Office of Mission Support to come up with factors to evaluate if EPA IT systems are ready for replacement or retirement.

In a letter included in the report, EPA said that the decision to replace or retire systems is delegated to senior information officials, per CIO policy, and pointed to existing directives on EPA tech management decisions.

As for the systems themselves, both “have been in operation for considerable time and could benefit from redevelopment or replacement,” the EPA letter notes. The Office of Air and Radiation “has taken steps to examine both systems for potential replacement.”

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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