New Jersey's Environmental Management Desktop
- By Jane Morrissey
- Nov 08, 1998
New Jersey may often bear the brunt of pollution jokes, but the state actually is far down on emissions lists, thanks to one of the most aggressive environmental programs in the United States.
A cornerstone of the effort is an electronic permitting system recently launched by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) that promises to ease the paperwork burden of the agency as well as of companies doing business in the state. The integrated system is expected to simplify drastically the permit application, issuing and monitoring process as well as facilitate enforcement that leads to cleaner air.
Industry groups-which were heavily involved in developing the system-now have software that guides them through filling out complex forms and submitting them by disk, e-mail, the Internet or on paper. At NJDEP, all the information is fed into a unified database that makes the data easy to review. While NJDEP has been online for only a few months, it already appears that permit turnaround will be reduced from months, even years, to just weeks.
The system, which was begun for air permits, is being extended to NJDEP's water and solid- and hazardous-waste programs and ultimately will provide a one-stop reporting system for all aspects of environmental protection.
"Industry was pretty frustrated with the way that we were delivering our services at the [NJDEP]," said Wendy Raynor, chief information officer for New Jersey, who was previously NJDEP's chief of operations and a key proponent of the system. "We had lots of levels of processes, and it wasn't very coordinated within the agency. We pulled together to do an integrated system, where we can use the information from all those factors and build a system once." The state tapped Fairfax, Va.-based American Management Systems Inc. (AMS) to design and build the system, which the company hopes will become a model for other states interested in one-stop reporting. Louisiana and Mississippi already are on deck to capitalize on the millions of dollars New Jersey has invested. NJDEP officials also are offering their expertise and plan to share the cost of future modifications.
"The goal is to leverage what we've done so it's cheaper for other states to get the same result," Raynor said. "Then, if we have enhancements, none of us pays the full burden."
The foundation of the system is AMS software dubbed the Environmental Management Desktop (EMD). In addition to marketing its software and services to other state environmental programs, AMS plans to devise iterations for any agency that issues permits, such as forestry and wildlife. But because regulations vary from state to state, it will never be as simple as buying an off-the-shelf package.
"This is not shrink-wrap software," said AMS vice president Gary Labovich, who runs the company's environmental systems group. "The nature of the business is complex, and there are just enough subtle differences to warrant some level of services." On the environmental front, he hopes that once AMS has about 10 states under its belt, a baseline product will emerge that can have states up and running in six months or less, including extensions that address each one's unique regulations.
The Permit Problem
As a result of an amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1992, states were faced with revamping their environmental programs to handle Title V operating permits. AMS identified the area as an opportunity and won projects in Ohio and Minnesota to tackle the problem. In the process, it devised EMD, a hub-and-spoke platform for processing Title V applications. The hub was designed as a central repository to house information and applications common to the air, water, solid and hazardous waste programs. The spokes would handle the unique aspects of each program.In 1995 New Jersey still was grappling with its permit process; companies were frustrated with the complex and lengthy process as well. "They'd fill out an application, it came in here, and God knows really what would happen to it," said Adel Ebeid, CIO of NJDEP.
"Maybe you would hear from us, if you're lucky, in 30 to 60 days," Ebeid said. "Most likely we'd tell you that the submission needs more information, and we would send it back. If we didn't hear from you in a couple of weeks, we denied the application, and the applicant had to go through the whole process all over again. Some applicants who were not very familiar with our process were caught in a real vicious, endless loop."
For its part, NJDEP was frustrated with the antiquated processes and technology used to deliver permits. Each division of the agency operated independently and had its own processes and nomenclature even though the divisions often dealt with the same regulated entities. Recognizing the problem, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman allocated funds to the department to begin the business process re-engineering and technology evaluation. NJDEP also enlisted the help of industry-which agreed to pay a surcharge based on emissions to help fund system development-to ensure that the system addressed their needs.
Initially, a management consulting firm was brought in as the primary contractor to tackle process re-engineering, while AMS devised the technology strategy. After five months, NJDEP severed the relationship with the consultant but used its recommendations to begin implementing the changes themselves, with the help of AMS, in 1996.
Although modeled after its work in Ohio and Minnesota, AMS took the New Jersey system several steps further. It has evolved into an integrated data management system that has a set of core capabilities common across the programs, with plug-ins tailored to their individual needs. The internal back end of the system is called the Air Information Management System (AIMS), while the front end for industry is called the Remote AIMS Data Input User System (RADIUS).
One of the biggest benefits of the system is its consistency and predictability. Before, applicants didn't even know what they were going to be measured against or what was required to get a permit. "Now, the applicant has tools on their desktop that help them figure out the whole permitting process from A to Z," Ebeid said. "They know what forms they need to complete and what state and federal requirements they have to live with. So they can make a decision right there and then about how they want to craft their permit."
A Title V permit application used to run about 62 pages. NJDEP and AMS were able to distill it down to about 12 screens - a major improvement from an industry standpoint. "There would be a lot of times with the paper forms where you'd have to regurgitate the same information numerous times," said Russ Cerchiaro, manager of environmental regulatory affairs and program development at Schering-Plough Corp., Union, N.J. Cerchiaro has been co-chairman of the AIMS project for the past year and a half. "Now, you only do it once, and it populates the rest of the applications with that specific information."
The collaboration between industry and NJDEP had its ups and downs, but it probably saved both sides from years of further frustration. "It's been challenging getting all the interested parties on the same page, perhaps with the same shared agenda, but in the end I think it'll work well," Ebeid said.
"It's definitely enhanced the relationships between industry and the department," Cerchiaro said. "We better appreciate each other's roles. We gained a trust and built a bond in what you can achieve through collaborative efforts." It was well worth the effort even with the downsides, he added. "Granted, it's a [double-edged] sword, where now we've given [NJDEP] the tools to better track our emissions and compliance histories.
"But let's face it, in the next millennium it's all going to be electronic, so we were just trying to capitalize on the moment, and I think we were able to do that." In the end, industry surcharges funded 75 percent of the $3 million AIMS/RADIUS project.
Raynor predicted everyone will see a payback: "Hopefully, it'll help industry's bottom line, help them stay in New Jersey and also protect the environment." And, if more states adopt AIMS/RADIUS, the permit process will get even easier for major companies such as DuPont, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson, which have facilities in almost every state. While NJDEP actually added a few staff members to its air program, the long-term plan is to do more with less. "For every permit that goes out, we will save X amount of hours, so eventually it will result is some savings," Raynor said. "But we'll do it through attrition, not layoffs. We have more than 500 permits waiting to get done because we were waiting for the system. We have a lot of work to do to catch up, so we're not ready to have any reduction in staff today."The Title V program is designed to be funded by industry emissions payments, and those emissions continue to decline. "New Jersey does not generate enough emissions to generate the revenues to run the program the size of which the department wanted," Cerchiaro said. "That's one of the challenges: Does the program need to be downsized accordingly? Those are some of the tough questions we're up against."
Down the Road
In addition to getting companies on RADIUS, AMS is working to extend its systems to New Jersey's water program by February, and solid- and hazardous-waste program in October. AMS is looking toward leveraging its work at the federal level, encouraging the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt the software as the basis for several projects.Enhancements to AIMS also are on tap, including plans for annual and quarterly online reports and offering a slimmed-down permit process for the mom-and-pop shops. NJDEP also plans to expand its Internet presence. Instead of just offering submissions over the World Wide Web, NJDEP hopes in the next six months to maintain a site for citizens and businesses to, for example, track where permits are in the process or find out about the cleanliness of their communities. "My goal as CIO of [New Jersey] is to make us the online state, where we deliver all our services online that have been process re-engineered so they are effective for all taxpayers and businesses," Raynor said. "I think the next generation is going to demand it, and we have to be ready to deliver that."
Jane Morrissey is a free-lance writer based in Denver. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before NJDEP could implement AIMS and RADIUS, the department had to take a hard look at its aging and redundant technology infrastructure. The good news: The department was able to free up funds to update its hardware, software and networking equipment to support the new system. The bad news: Some of the system requirements were hard to swallow.
"They were way behind the times. When we got there, they weren't even on Windows 3.1," said AMS vice president Gary Labovich. AIMS and RADIUS would require a move to Windows 95 and Microsoft Office, and no one was eager to move from their current word processing standard, which was a DOS version of WordPerfect. "It was one of the toughest meetings I've ever seen. But to their credit, they sucked it up and got everybody trained."
Getting legacy data into the new system has proved to be the most difficult aspect of all these projects. "If there has been any hang up to this at all, that's been it," Labovich said. But it's impossible to support the myriad data formats in use by all companies and agencies. "One of the things you come across in these kind of initiative is that there's pain somewhere down the line, and a lot of the companies are dealing with the fact that they are going to have to throw away what they had and come up with a new solution to feed the beast, so to speak."
Even Schering-Plough has yet to begin filing electronically and is still mired in translating data from its database to RADIUS. "I suspect we'll maximize our efforts between 2000 [and] 2002; that's where we will really start to see the benefits of this conversion," said Russ Cerchiaro, AIMS project co-chairman.
Because some of New Jersey's 16,000 regulated entities are mom-and-pop shops, such as dry cleaners, there's also a challenge of making sure everyone has the equipment, however minimal, to run RADIUS. NJDEP could make electronic submissions mandatory as early as next year and is working on training programs and other services to ease the transition. So far, more than 600 companies have been trained and 400 more are scheduled to be trained by the end of the year. NJDEP also may enlist the help of county colleges, libraries and chambers of commerce to provide access to companies wanting to submit applications online.
NJDEP also didn't foresee how important training was in the transition. "We are finding out that if you don't spend a lot of time and money on training the users, unfortunately they are going to become the bottleneck," said Adel Ebeid, CIO of NJDEP.
Labovich said the system was ready in September 1997, but "the department wasn't ready to roll it out because they hadn't done a good job of communicating the change." He accepts part of the blame for not working harder on change management in parallel with development.
How It Works
AIMS and RADIUS follow a client/server architecture. AMS chose Sybase Inc.'s PowerBuilder 5.0 to develop the front end of both programs because of its scalability and support for a multitude of back-end databases. Client PCs require Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95, Microsoft Office 97 and, at minimum, a 486 MHz processor. The back end of AIMS, based on Oracle Corp.'s Oracle7 relational database management system, runs on a Sun Microsystems Inc. Enterprise 4000 server with a Sun Solaris 2.x operating system.
"Sun wasn't necessarily the best product at the time, but given some budget constraints and the size of the agency and number of applications we wanted on that box, it turned out for the money that Sun was the best solution," said AMS vice president Gary Labovich.
Given the cross-platform abilities of Oracle7 and PowerBuilder, AIMS is not married to the Sun box. Minnesota, for example, opted for a Digital Equipment Corp. Alpha-based machine.
RADIUS comes in CD-ROM form and, because of time and money constraints, is a stand-alone application. (There are plans to make it local-area network-enabled in the future.) RADIUS houses a unique permit requirements library-and there are more than 30,000 requirements-that helps applicants find the appropriate regulations and fill out their forms correctly. An applications wizard assists applicants who are unsure about which standards apply to their situation. The wizard asks the applicant a series of questions and then provides the best recommended standards based on the input.
Because inaccurate or incomplete forms are the most common problems afflicting the permit process, RADIUS also offers automated completeness and validity checks that increase the odds of a permit sailing through the approval process.
Once the forms are complete, applicants can mail a disk, e-mail an attachment or send the forms over the Web (the forms are encrypted) to the AIMS system. At that point, the internal processes kick in, such as permit reviews, site inspections, reports, activity tracking, and assessing and collecting fees.