ARGONNE, Ill. (Jan. 21, 2005) — As the volume of environmental data grows, so does the need to manage it and make it available. The mission of Argonne's Environmental Assessment Division (EAD) is to advance informed environmental decision-making. This mission includes developing innovative, Web-based applications that encourage greater stakeholder involvement, simplified project management, cost savings and improved products.
Whether developing the environmental impact statement of the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline System or documenting the environmental hazards left behind at a chemical munitions dump, EAD's multi-disciplinary teams must manage large amounts of information accurately and provide it to the public. Sponsors include the U.S. Departments of Energy, Defense and the Interior.
The division has been developing Web sites since 1995, and it continues to push Web technology applications. EAD develops sites that provide two-way communication for environmental projects, creates Web-enabled software and pioneers the use of wireless technology in field reporting.
“For a decade,” said EAD Division Director Tony Dvorak, “we have been developing novel methods to provide accurate, timely information to stakeholders and decision makers involved in environmental projects. This is where EAD makes its mark as always being a step ahead.
“Using the Internet,” Dvorak said, “improves speed and accuracy in a complex, legally regulated project.” EAD has developed and managed more than 100 Web sites to support environmental data management and communication needs for sponsors' projects, sometimes in support of other Argonne divisions, in such areas as:
* Emergency response
* Environmental monitoring
* Infrastructure management
* Real-time remediation support
* Public information and involvement
* Environmental compliance tracking, and
* Environmental restoration program management.
“Web technologies change constantly,” explained Robert Johnson, program manager for environmental information management and communication. “So EAD must not only create new technologies but creatively apply existing and emerging technologies to federal environmental problems.” Understanding the environmental assessment process
Much of EAD's work is tied to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an assessment for almost any activity undertaken by a federal agency or affecting federal land or resources. EAD evaluates the activity's impact on the environment, which includes land, water, air, structures, living organisms, environmental values at the site, and social, cultural and economic factors.
These assessments, especially when they require an additional environmental impact statement, are time-consuming and costly; they can take years and cost millions, depending on the project's complexity and sensitivity. Assessments require extensive planning and efficient transfer of plans, information, results, comments and resolutions among the many stakeholders involved. The stakeholders can be residents, local governments and other organizations.
An environmental impact statement (EIS) requires two major public involvement stages. In the “public scoping” stage, the public asks questions about the project and recommends areas to investigate. After experts perform the study, the draft EIS is made available to the public for review and comment during the “public comment” stage. Comments provided at this stage are used to finalize the EIS. Public meetings are commonly held at both stages.
Public meetings are costly; they require advertisement and hall rental, as well as travel by many researchers, officials and managers. “General information is available at the meeting, and experts attend to answer questions and take comments,” said Web Program Manager Bob Sullivan, “but attendance is frequently very low. Often the experts outnumber the attendees.”
Communicating information to the public
EAD specializes in running efficient environmental assessments and impact statements, and Web sites are an important component. EAD Web sites offer two-way communication and allow agencies to efficiently manage data, including questions and comments that must be answered.
EAD is currently working with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), on an EIS investigating wind energy development on western public lands administered by BLM – excluding Alaska. According to Sullivan, “we estimate we are saving the sponsor a minimum of $100,000 – more than the cost of developing the Web site – and reaching hundreds of times more people than we historically have through the traditional methods.”
The Web is an efficient option for this EIS. Since the project covers several western states, the cost of multiple meetings for stakeholder input would be high.
EAD designed a Web site (windeis.anl.gov) that uses lay language to explain the EIS process, provides a copy of the Wind Energy Development EIS and encourages participation in the process. The Web site provides extensive background on wind energy, including basic information, a discussion of environmental issues, maps, photos and links to energy resources on the Web. Automated e-mail notices inform stakeholders about public comment periods and the availability of important documents. During public comment periods, stakeholders submitted comments on the EIS through a Web form.
“Our Web site,” Sullivan said, “was much more efficient for sharing information and gathering comments than the traditional meetings during the first “scoping” stage of the process, so for the first time the Bureau of Land Management chose to do the draft EIS public involvement stage by Web only.”
The scoping period ran from mid-October to mid-December 2003. Attendance at the five scoping meetings totaled 157; 42 comment documents were submitted at meetings and by mail. In comparison, the EAD-developed Web page brought in 82 scoping comment documents; more than 22,000 pages were viewed in 10,545 user sessions by 4,811 visitors.
After the scoping process, researchers performed the assessment and drafted the EIS. Then stakeholders had three months to review the EIS and comment. Because the Web site was used so successfully during the scoping phase, the Bureau of Land Management did not hold meetings and used only the Web site for comments. “With so many people owning computers or having computer access at libraries,” Sullivan said, “the Web site gave more people access to the documents and provided them with an easier way to comment than public meetings would.”
During the main comment period, from September 10, 2004, to December 10, 2004, the Web site was active: Web users submitted 99 comment documents, compared to 24 comment documents sent though the mail. Web usage numbers for this period were high: 47,747 pages were viewed in 16,680 user sessions by 8,406 visitors.
In addition to setting up the Web site, EAD has developed a time-saving, efficient comment-management-and-response system to track comments. All comments must be answered, and many require input from more than one expert.
Before using EAD's Web-based system, comments were photocopied and sometimes scanned or re-entered into the computer and taken apart so sections could be routed around the country from responder to responder by mail or e-mail. For electronic comments, workers had to combine the comments with the commentor's demographic data and pass the results around via e-mail.
With EAD's system, the comments are fed from the Internet to the comment-management system. A manager determines the comment flow through various expert responders. As each expert responds, the comment is automatically sent to the next expert. The manager can also track the workflow graphically on the computer and can find problems, such as bottlenecks. Creating innovative Web-enabled software
“EAD prides itself on always being a step ahead of the competition,” said Johnson. “We got started in this work when major corporations we worked with still saw the Internet as frivolous and did not want their employees using it.”
“Our first Web-related project was in 1995 in Painesville, Ohio. While collecting data on a site contaminated with material used for nuclear weapons development, we were challenged to keep all of the stakeholders informed. We thought we'd try using a Web site.”
Only the people generating data were on site; others were spread around the state and the country. EAD developed a secure Web site to provide daily work updates to stakeholders, including the contractors and regulators. Data included maps and information about chemical and radioactive waste on the Painesville site.
“The Web site served the purpose we expected,” Johnson said. “People associated with the project from across the country could see the data, talk about it and make decisions in a timely fashion.”
The Web site provided an unexpected benefit, as well. “Because the data were updated so regularly,” Johnson said, “we caught any equipment errors within hours. This is critical since collecting this information is so expensive. We won a DOE Pollution Prevention Award for this work, and we have been using the Web as a critical component in our work ever since.”
Specialized site to support emergency response
EAD continues its innovations. A more recent example is a specialized Web site to support oil and gas wellhead emergency response in Ohio.
With funding from DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory, EAD worked with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to develop the interactive Ohio Oil and Gas Well Emergency Response System. The Web site provides access to maps of 1,000 Ohio Townships with more than 30,000 production wells. The site uses an EAD-developed Java applet called Maps and Data (MaD) Browser that provides detailed, interactive maps using standard Web browsers. These maps are updated regularly and show lakes, schools, roads, rivers, hospitals and production wells.
The Web site also includes access to the Ohio Risk-based Data Management System, so users can identify well owners and operators.
In case of a fire at an oil well, first responders can pull up the Web site, and using the layers of maps, determine the best access as well as decide who needs to be evacuated and the safest routes. When well operators have spills, they can use the Web site to guide them through the reporting process.
EAD designed the Web site to improve response times to oil and gas wellhead emergencies, to reduce public health concerns and environmental risks, and to facilitate spill reporting. The Web site was designed to work with slow modem connections. In operation for four years, the site is a model for the other 28 states producing gas and oil. The Web site received an award from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Wireless data collection
EAD continues to test the limits of technology. Many EAD projects require collecting samples at contaminated sites, processing the samples and then logging the results on a map for evaluation.
During a recent data collection visit to a chemical munitions installation, Sullivan and colleague Lou Martino tested the latest wireless technology many people use daily in the business world.
Martino used a prototype handheld X-ray fluorescence sensor on loan from the developer to measure elemental metals in the soil. The sensor sent data wirelessly to his personal digital assistant (PDA). The PDA was loaded with advanced mapping software, so the results were updated to the map on the PDA rapidly.
The information was e-mailed using a cell connection to analysts at Argonne, who updated the Web site within an hour, greatly streamlining a data-analysis and mapping process that can take weeks. Project staff were notified immediately by e-mail about the Web site update.
“That day one of our experts was in a meeting out of town,” Sullivan said. “He read the e-mail on his PDA. Using his wireless technology, he went directly to the Web site to check the data and asked the field workers to recheck some of the sites because the values did not look correct.
“It was like a light bulb went on then,” Sullivan said. “It all happened so quickly. I realized that people can tell you right away that your instrument is not calibrated properly, or even to leave the site because it is dangerous, which could have homeland security applications.”
Feedback also came in quickly from others involved in the project. The wireless technology has the opportunity to improve environmental research and to save money by not having to recollect flawed data; it can be recollected in the same visit and save thousands of dollars.
EAD will continue to develop and test new technologies to improve environmental assessments.
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