EPA enhances Envirofacts' mapping

The Environmental Protection Agency last month unveiled an enhanced World Wide Web site that will provide citizens with better information on potential environmental hazards in their neighborhoods and will help agencies build their own electronic maps.

The site, the EPA's Envirofacts Warehouse (www.epa.gov/enviro), now includes a homegrown application called EnviroMapper that lets users of the site browse a clickable map of the United States to access online maps of their own neighborhoods. The maps include color-coded blocks designating sites that release pollutants into the air or into the water. The maps also highlight Superfund sites— where the government is funding the cleanup of hazardous waste— as well as schools and hospitals.

The enhanced site improves the quality and timeliness of the information that users can download, according to the EPA. Once a user has zeroed in on a map of his neighborhood, he can click on color-coded blocks to find out exactly what company or organization is releasing which pollutants into the environment. "Now you've got the ability to go into California, to go into L.A. and look at the things around your neighborhood," said Pat Garvey, director of the Envirofacts Warehouse. "And it's all interactive."

Previously, users getting electronic maps did not know details referenced by the color-coded blocks. For example, a given block was simply designated as a facility that was a Superfund site or a site that discharged chemicals into the air. Moreover, the Web site did not produce the maps in real time. Instead, a user would choose which features he wanted highlighted on an electronic map and then wait for that map to be developed and posted on the site.

The EnviroMapper feature lets members of the public get a better idea of what is happening in their neighborhoods, Garvey said. "It gives you a perspective of your back yard to your neighborhood and the surrounding country," he said. "You really visualize and see so much better what [you can] get involved in."

Dave Catlin, project officer for the Envirofacts Warehouse, said the EPA used Netscape Communications Corp.'s Enterprise Server 3.0 for Windows NT and Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Basic 5 as well as Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.'s (ESRI) MapObjects and Internet Map Server to craft the new site.

"It's a perfect mixture of the government being able to develop what they need using [commercial off-the-shelf] products," said Dana Paxson, the federal marketing coordinator for ESRI, which helped the EPA pull together its EnviroMapper project.

The approach to producing the maps is a simplified one, relying on a database of pre-made map grids that let users zoom in on the neighborhood they are interested in, Catlin said. "It will help take the data management burden off of our shoulders— the spatial data management burden," he said.

Moreover, the simplified approach using grids— rather than creating maps from scratch each time— should make it easier for other agencies to use the EPA maps and data to enhance their own data, according to the EPA.

Garvey said officials at an agency that had detailed geographic data on storm- water runoff, for example, could take the EPA data and overlay it with its own data to get a better idea of pollution hot spots. "If any other agency or group wants to put up spatial databases, they have the ability to use EnviroMapper and have their spatial data used with it," Garvey said.

Brad McLane, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, a nonprofit water-quality advocacy group, described EnviroMapper as a tool that will help sate public hunger for environmental information. "Interest in water quality and environmental issues is at an all-time high in Alabama, and there is a great hunger for information about pollution problems and river health," he said. "EPA's Enviro-Mapper is a valuable tool that helps citizens to understand the condition of the environment in their back yard."

But some EPA observers would like to see a little more information online. Allison LaPlante, an environmental advocate at the Public Interest Research Group, Washington, D.C., applauded the more user-friendly site but said the EPA should include information that helps the public understand the significance of the release of particular pollutants into the environment and explains what would happen if there were a fire or some other accident at any of the sites in the Envirofacts database.

"We would still say there is a lot of information missing from the EPA databases," she said. "We have to focus on making the information more complete."

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