Watchdog neighbors win with GIS

Ten years ago, the Greenpoint and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn incorporated then-fledgling geographic information system technology to keep an eye on the community's environment.

In the wake of a successful lawsuit brought against the New York Department of Environmental Protection for, ironically, polluting, the two communities used money from the settlement to create the Greenpoint/Williamsburg Environmental Benefits Program.

The neighbors wanted a way to continue monitoring the situation. They approached Jeffrey Osleeb, a professor of geology at Hunter College in New York, who thought GIS could be the answer.

"What we did was take all the information we could get from federal, state and local governments and plug it into the GIS," Osleeb said. "It's little sister watching big brother, as we liked to call it, because here was the community now with the technological capability to watch over not just geographic but environmental aspects of itself." The community group then cross- referenced things such as toxic release inventories and hazardous material storage sites with locations of schools, for example, or public housing developments. By plotting the environmental databases onto a physical map of the area, the neighbors could get a feel for the "environmental load" on their community. They could see how at-risk a particular neighborhood actually was to environmental problems. "This was really forward use of the technology at the time," Osleeb said.

The Department of Environmental Protection provided much of the data for the system. Inez Pasher, president of the Watchperson Project, which continues to monitor the communities' GIS system, said it was only logical to get the department's data because it was most relevant to the project.

Pasher says the department's data helped residents back up their claims of environmental polluting, and they used it to track trends and predict future developments in the communities.

Since July 1995, GIS technology has helped the communities close the city's largest garbage transfer station, issue some 80 pollution violation notices to local businesses and settle 20 local environmental disputes.

None of which could have been done without the GIS, according to Robert Lewis, GIS coordinator at the Watchperson Project (www.walrus.com/~terminus/wp/home.shtml). Lewis, a community activist who claims to be "pretty good with computers," said that with manufacturing plants so prominent in a residential community, residents would never be able to "figure out who the bad actors are."

"The way in which we're continuing to use the GIS, and the information we can use with it, allows us to generate precise, comprehensive environmental analyses of the various impacts on the communities," he said.

The technology worked so well that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Policy, Economics and Innovation sought the input of the Watchperson Project for data validation of the impacts of dry-cleaning operations on residential apartments.

But with funding for the program dried up, these days the neighbors rely on community activism and grants to continue working with the GIS technology.

"It's more of a labor of love really," Lewis said.

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