The notice over the weekend shocked scientific and technical researchers on environmental issues: The Environmental Protection Agency's 5-year-old open data website, a trove of data on air, water and ground pollution and the sources of toxic chemical releases, was about to be shut down.
One day later, following an uproar on social media, the EPA seemed to backpedal. The rumors about opendata.epa.gov, according to a tweet from the agency's official Twitter account, "are wrong. It's open, working & not going anywhere. This website & the EPA belong to you."
The website's creator and operator, Bernadette Hyland — who generated the alarm via an article she posted on Medium.com — attributes the EPA's reversal to the explosive reaction from researchers who viewed the piece and tweets directing readers there, by the thousands. "EPA discovered that this was something that a lot of people cared about," she says.
The EPA has a different story. The agency says that it has no plans to shut down the website, much less bury the data it makes accessible, and never did.
"Long story short, this story was a hoax," agency spokesman J.P. Freire told me. "We have not had any conversations at EPA about taking down the website."
Some of the excitement over the rumor that the site was on the chopping block undoubtedly stems from the context of the Trump administration, which has shown overt hostility to the EPA's traditional role as a regulator of pollution-emitting industries and a collector of data related to climate change.
That hostility has been demonstrated by the appointment of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who, as Oklahoma's attorney general, aggressively battled EPA regulations, making him one of several Trump appointees who are distinctly out of step with their agencies. Trump's proposed budget, moreover, would take a 31% bite out of the EPA, including a 25% cut in its workforce.
The implication that a government website giving researchers and the public access to EPA databases was on the chopping block for the same reason that the rest of the agency looks to be under siege stirred a strong reaction. Some researchers sought to "mirror" EPA data by duplicating it on non-government websites, as though to safeguard it from efforts at suppression.
The nature of discussions between Hyland and EPA officials about the website's future is also in dispute. Hyland says she recently received a memo suggesting that the website would be suspended, at least, if Congress failed to fund the government past its budget deadline this week. "If Congress does not pass a budget, we will be facing a government shutdown and won't be able to give technical direction to continue any work," the memo said, according to Hyland's article.
But Hyland says that she received hints about EPA's intention to shut down the website much earlier, before the budget deadline loomed on the horizon. Those hints, she says, were connected more with President Trump's call for a stringent budget cut for the EPA.
From her vantage point, EPA officials have had the knives out for the open data website since the inception of the current leadership regime, under Pruitt. "They were looking for low-hanging fruit to cut," she told me. "This seemed easy enough to cut, because it's a modest website."
EPA officials on Monday decried what they called "inappropriate and unauthorized communications on EPA's behalf" by Hyland. Freire says the agency posted a "corrective" message visible to visitors to the open data site, advising that its data "will continue to be available on April 28, 2017" — though the message offers no word about what could happen starting a day later.
It would be understandable if an administration that has shown hostility to hard data would find the website unpalatable. The website collects data that previously were accessible only within their own "silos," and aggregates it so users can trawl for a bigger picture. One featured service currently offered on the website allows researchers to examine data and graphs tracking a large number of pollutants emitted by power plants in the EPA database, for example.
Hyland says her northern Virginia Web firm, 3 Round Stones, received a contract to develop and operate the EPA open data website about five years ago. EPA says the contract runs out in May.
So did "people power" save opendata.epa.gov and its data? Possibly, and possibly not. But did the Trump administration get a loud and clear message that it should tread lightly around the EPA, its mission and its extensive hoards of environmental data? It certainly did.