State-wide collection of site remediation data in support of environmental quality objectives

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Courtesy of Courtesy of EarthSoft, Inc

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) hold great potential as a tool for managing environmental site remediation data. While noting the location of contaminated sites in GIS is commonplace, GIS has played only a minor role in review and analysis of chemical data gathered during an investigation or monitoring activity. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Site Remediation Branch (NJDEP SRP) has undertaken a project making the use of GIS for this purpose a reality within their organization. Through the statewide collection of environmental information in electronic format, managers will have the basic data to support geographic analysis and display elements on a site by site basis.

There are a number of reasons why GIS has not become commonplace in the evaluation of site remediation data. First, remediation projects often produce huge volumes of data. Hardcopy Quality Assurance Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC) reports can easily fill ten or more boxes when delivered to a regulatory agency. Moving this amount of data from paper to database can be a daunting task involving a considerable cost. Second, GIS is not the traditional tool applied by remediation specialists during the decision making process. Instead, the work of project managers, chemists, geologists, and risk assessors are brought together in static reports. It is not immediately intuitive how the products generated by these individuals fit together within the GIS framework. Even a simple graphical user interface (GUI) can be intimidating for individuals who are used to working with derived hardcopy data sets. Furthermore, there has not been an agreed upon objective measure of environmental progress for pollution abatement within the regulatory community. 'Bean-counts' and dollars spent on cleanups or containment have been the classic measure. While these data are easily compiled, they have not demonstrated a direct link to enhanced safety to human health or environment. Indeed, this way of measuring progress has been a dominant source of friction between regulators and the regulated community.

Addressing the first issue--voluminous hardcopy data submissions, the Department of Environmental Protection Site Remediation Program has required that all sites presently being remediated within New Jersey submit site data in electronic format. Moving away from hardcopy data submission has the potential to accelerate the review and statistical manipulation of information, significantly enhancing service to the regulated community and protection of the environment and public. The agency is already collecting massive amounts of data and the need to be able to process this information quickly and accurately is a growing concern. Recognizing the importance of GIS as a tool for visualizing site conditions and displaying and manipulating results, all location and chemical submitted data is now required to be digital and GIS compatible. Towards this end the Department was involved in the revision and readoption of the Technical Rules for Site Remediation NJAC 7:26E.

The submission of site data will permit the NJDEP to perform standard tasks more efficiently and with greater accuracy. There are a number of current and planned uses for the digital data generated under the new technical regulations. These include:

Site specific data analysis for use by case managers as part of their daily routine and decision making process,
Combining data across sites in an effort to understand regional problems and to assist in contaminant source track down,
As digital data repository used for contouring soil and ground water contamination, predictive modeling and calculating contaminant risk exposures,
As a source for the development of a graphical outputs to communicate environmental risk issue to the public,
In environmental indicator analysis designed to quantify contaminant measurement to track the effectiveness of remedial strategies over time on a particular site or on a regionally defined (e.g., watershed) basis.
Before the benefits from these activities could be realized, a number of issues were addressed regarding the statewide collection of data. Listed briefly, they represent the planning for a monumental effort that will continue to evolve. Considerations included:
Cost-benefit analysis insuring the cost of converting from the present system to an electronic data submission system warranted the effort,
Identifying the hardware, software requirements to accomplish data management goals,
Creating a standard, formatted electronic data deliverable and associated valid values for data submission,
Communicating and coordinating data formatting and data quality concerns to the regulated community,
Assessing and describing the technical requirements associated with the effort,
Preparing staff for the technical and organizational challenge of administering this effort,
Development or selection of a data management system to store the data, insuring that the information can be recovered and used quickly and accurately.
The largest obstacles have involved developing the human systems and computing systems to support NJDEP objectives. To facilitate the management of environmental site remediation data a number of tools were incorporated into the data management process - a process that is dependent on people. Both tools and process will continue to evolve.

The Hazsites data entry program is being distributed by the NJDEP to facilitate the manual entry of site data. The regulated community may submit data created using the Hazsites tool, produced in other applications such as spreadsheet and database programs, or more likely for large projects, delivered in digital format by the laboratory and subsequently submitted by the contractor. Other software tools have been coordinated to track data submissions, move data through the organization, and to preserve the meta-data associated with data deliverables.

EQuIS for Windows was selected by the NJDEP as the environmental data management system for storing and accessing data. Through a set of procedures and import routines, data is evaluated for quality criteria. Data that passes the quality checks is made available to SRP staff. Submissions that fail are rejected, requiring resubmission. Once in the EQuIS system large volumes of chemical data may be combined with other site-specific information such as geological and hydrological data. Additionally, users may organize constituent groups, locations, and regulatory limits to support the analysis of data over a particular site or group of sites. For example, a project manager could group shallow monitoring wells to evaluate all volatile organic compounds above a particular cleanup level. This ability to aggregate data is critical to investigating site conditions.

GIS is a powerful tool for evaluating site data. However, the cost/benefits of applying GIS may raise concerns without a sound strategy for quality issues, version control , and accessing stored data. The EQuIS-ArcView interface is a fully integrated product capable of connecting to any project supported by EQuIS. Using this interface, managers are able to quickly and seamlessly retrieve data for a project or set of projects. Ancillary project information such as location groupings and regulatory thresholds are available through the interface if they have been incorporated within the data management system. Project data is refreshed each time the ArcView interface is invoked. Sampling locations, for example, are presented based upon stored coordinates. Should data change, this will be reflected. Accessing a common repository containing the most recent data ensures that users are working with the same data, using the same conventions. Data evaluation is supported through a custom GUI or may be performed through standard ArcView functions. Because an open system is supported, experienced programmers can easily develop their own ArcView tools using the data tables that are provided within the interface.

The EQuIS environmental data management system addresses the second major problem identified - integration of analysis results from non-GIS tools. Because data is stored in a common repository which is integrated with a variety of third-party tools such a Surfer, Stratos, GMS, LogPlot, and various statistical packages, results from these tools can be easily recombined within the ArcView interface should they have coordinate information. Non-spatial results capable of being displayed by ArcView may be linked to site features. From within a GIS, it is possible to review and compare results created using disparate tools that resource managers have long relied on for decision support. By integrating these tools and their results with 'live' data, each becomes more valuable to the decision making process.

An interesting initiative using the data produced by the NJDEP involves both NJDEP and the USEPA, Region II. Encouraged through Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), NJDEP endeavored to participate in the National Environmental Performance Partnership System (NEPPS). This program is intended to shift focus from activity based measures of performance to outcome based measures of progress. It emphasizes the interpretation and communication of scientifically sound environmental information using the concept of environmental indicators (EIs) to measure current conditions and trends over time. This information is to be used by departmental managers, the legislature, the environmental community, the regulated community and the general public. Agency goals are revised to consider environmental results with progress being evaluated in terms of EIs. Accurate and reliable EIs that are understandable and communicable in non-technical terms are vital for evaluating progress.

Responding to this need, EPA Region II formed an Environmental Indicators Quality Action Team in order to develop meaningful and accurate EIs. The team was tasked to setup criteria for EIs that are scientific measurements of change in the quality of the environment. They correlated the quality of the environment with the amount and distribution of contamination within the environment and developed a multi-media, mass balance approach for EIs called Quantitative Environmental Indicators (QEIs). QEIs attempt to quantify factors that are not otherwise measurable, such as the effectiveness of groundwater contamination extraction, amount of continuing sources or natural attenuation to groundwater, and identification of the contribution of unknown sources to groundwater. In order to define the QEIs it is necessary to perform spatial operations that calculate the aerial extent of contamination, approximate the volume of contaminant, and subsequently derive the contaminant mass. QEIs thus provide insight into the dynamics of the system and relative contaminant distributions.

The NJDEP SRP and EPA began to look towards the mapping of Classification Exemption Areas (defined local areas of ground water that do not meet water quality standards) as a model for using GIS as a tool for calculating and visualizing QEIs. Initially, QEI mapping activities involved contacting case managers to arrange access to files. Based upon review of the files, maps were then generated using direct digitizing techniques that reflected the aerial distribution of contamination. This approach was very tedious and depending on project data, could result in no map development at all. It became clear that case by case development of graphic representations for QEIs was not feasible unless data was available in electronic format and could be manipulated through a GIS system.

Using the Spatial Analyst extension with the EQuIS-ArcView interface staff scientists are able to quickly interpolate chemical concentrations. Data is assessed in terms of area and volume using depth information. Using the same techniques that were applied manually to quantify contaminant mass, numbers are derived for each of the environmental indicators through the ArcView GIS system. By utilizing new technologies to automate this task the state of New Jersey has raised their sites an order of magnitude. Instead of evaluating one or two sites in terms of QEIs, ten to twenty sites may be considered as the level of effort associated with this task has been greatly reduced.

The initiatives of the NJDEP address major obstacles to successful and meaningful management of contaminated sites incorporating the use of GIS. Through a program of environmental data collection and standardization, the Department of Environmental Protection is creating the framework whereby the regulatory community will be better informed, more prepared to make decisions, better able to communicate environmental conditions, and ever improving their service and commitment to the residents of New Jersey.

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