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EPA Gives the Public a Window into the 'black Box' of Environmental Modeling

January 29, 2004


EPA has long used computer and mathematical models as part of its regulatory activity. The agency employs them to simulate what happens to pollutants in the environment, to estimate the effects of contaminants on health and on ecosystems, and to evaluate the costs and benefits of regulations. But the public has not been privy to exactly what goes into the "black box" of environmental models or just how they crunch data to produce results that regulators rely on.

The agency is changing this situation. On Jan. 28, EPA began posting on its website information about 90 models that it uses most frequently. One model, called BATHTUB, is used to study nutrient enrichment of water reservoirs. Another is named ABEL and is employed by enforcement officials to evaluate corporations' claims that they cannot afford to comply with environmental standards, clean up pollution, or pay penalties. And the model dubbed ECOSAR uses structure-activity relationships to predict the toxicity of new industrial chemicals to aquatic organisms, including fish, invertebrates, and green algae.

In addition to unveiling the database on its models, EPA released draft in-house guidelines on how the agency will develop, evaluate, and apply models used to make regulatory decisions.

"By providing access to our tools and methods, we can improve the public's understanding of how sound science is used to make environmental decisions," Acting Deputy Administrator Stephen L. Johnson says.

J. Paul Gilman, EPA assistant administrator for research and development, says these moves help transform the black box of environmental modeling into a transparent Plexiglas box that gives the public a window into the workings of these models. Gilman notes that only two other federal agencies--the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Information Administration--have made public their guidelines on how they develop, evaluate, and apply models.

The database of EPA's most frequently used models is available at Gilman says the agency plans to add more models to the database.


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