Energy & Environment

Gone Fishing

EPAs aren't keeping up with other agencies in using high-tech tools to detect dangers and deter misconduct.
by | August 2005
 

Our system for protecting the environment isn't keeping up. We're missing clues that could tip us off to gathering menaces that sooner or later will erupt into full-blown environmental crises.

It's not a matter of dereliction of duty. It's more that federal, state and local regulators remain preoccupied with by-the-book enforcement of 30-year-old environmental laws. They've fallen behind many other agencies that are taking cutting-edge information technology and turning it into an instrument for timely and capable governing.

Police departments in New York, Chicago and other cities, for instance, deploy state-of-the-art information systems that help officers prevent crime. Since environmental regulators are the pollution-fighting equivalents of the cop on the beat, they should be quicker to catch on to how handling data more deftly could deter misconduct and detect unforeseen dangers.

For three decades, pollution-control agencies have been collecting regular reports from factories, landfills, sewage treatment plants, dry cleaners and other facilities on what they emit into the air, release to the water or discard at disposal sites. But most of the information gathers dust in unopened file cabinets or unconnected computer drives. Governments at all levels have been assessing scientific studies in drafting environmental impact statements since the early 1970s, former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer says, "but we've done that project by project, agency by agency, and the data was seldom used or shared."

By its nature, most environmental degradation directly impacts geographically distinct landscapes and the communities that lie nearby. As Geringer notes, "all the data is local, it's referencing a place." Now, rapidly developing geographic information system technology is building a powerful information management tool that governments could use to focus pollution regulation more sharply to fit real-life conditions on the ground. Within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its state pollution-control counterparts, some foresighted administrators have begun renovating obsolete technology, integrating information-sharing systems and stepping up real-time monitoring of environmental conditions.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is among the few that are keeping pace. It has spent eight years incorporating data into a new Environmental Results Management System. Similarly, the Michigan and Wisconsin agencies are working on integrating water-quality data to help their staffs track compliance and map pollution trends. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the local government in Broward County, Florida, equip inspectors with laptops, phones, digital cameras and mobile printers so that they can conduct all their work on the road without returning to the office to file paper reports. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is funding pilot projects in 21 states looking at connections between asthma, cancer and other serious diseases and pollution data that EPA collects.

Since the 1970s, government standards have produced vital environmental improvements by ordering factories and sewage plants to install the best available pollution-control equipment. But EPA and its state partners haven't been nearly so resolute about taking advantage of the latest information-processing technology themselves. It's not surprising that the most intriguing on-the-ground results are now coming from outside environmental regulatory agencies.

Near Boston, for instance, monitoring by volunteers with the Charles River Watershed Association discovered that illegal sewage hookups and shoddy sewer maintenance were degrading water quality. In New Jersey, Rutgers University's

Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis has teamed up with local agricultural extension service agents to help farmers cut pesticide use--and their operating costs--by applying GIS mapping technology. Large Midwest and Western farms have embraced GIS to come up with detailed on-the-ground information for farmer-operators to use to adjust how much water, fertilizer, fuel and chemical pesticides they apply. New

Jersey's program applies the same methods to persuade cranberry, corn and vegetable growers to limit insecticide spraying to field pests that are most likely to threaten crops. The savings help the state's small family-run farms stay in business, but the whole state reaps environmental benefits: Fewer chemicals run off to contaminate rivers and streams.

Big-city cops and rural extension agents have caught up with the information processing revolution. Not pollution regulators. It may take a forceful governor or two to compel them to connect the information dots digitally.

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