Where is That Facility?

By Casey J. McLaughlin

Regulating pollutants requires knowing about the pollutants but also where they are.  When President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, he took parts of several agencies and combined them into a new and expanded agency tasked with regulating environmental pollutants. One might think after 40 years that we would be a well-oiled machine, but it is more complicated than that.  Self-reporting, split jurisdictions between federal and state, and functions driven by different legislation, mandates and funding sources have combined to cause some confusion. Without going into the why, regulated facilities have multiple hands touching multiple data multiple times in different ways for different purposes.  The Facility Registry System (FRS) integrates data across the programs into one source of comprehensive environmental information about federally regulated facilities.

The facility registry program (FRS) is the geospatial component of the Envirofacts database.  Envirofacts integrates a variety of facility information from multiple databases into one searchable place.  In other words, Envirofacts is a single point of access to search U.S. EPA environmental data.  With those two systems introduced, let us look at some different questions and how FRS helps.

Question 1: How many facilities are near my house?

I believe this is one of the main questions Envirofacts and FRS answer.  The web search interface groups the facilities together and users can see how many total sites are nearby.  The interface links users with various reports about inspections, compliance notes and more.  Very useful.

Question 2: Suppose the Arch in St. Louis has fallen into the river, what facilities would be affected?

I would immediately open my mapping software/Geographic Information System (GIS) and select the 3 points adjacent to the arch (2 blue dots on the shore and a third in the river and a little north of the arch).   While it looks like 3 results, the identify returns 5!  The Jefferson National Expanse has 3 points that are on top of each other.  Spatially they are the same, but three different programs track the facility.  Still, this is very useful information because it focuses the response by directing responders to specific names and locations.  They know what they should be looking for. During our response to floods in the summer of 2011, we strategically sent people into facilities identified as “at-risk” based on their proximity to flood prone areas and at-risk levees.  Find out more at: http://www.epaosc.org/site/site_profile.aspx?site_id=7103

Question 3:  Where are the smokestacks for facility x?

Ah, here comes the rub with FRS (one of).  Envirofacts provides one location per facility and does not contain “sub-facility” information!  This data does exist, but getting it isn’t straight-forward and isn’t part of the core FRS dataset yet.

The Facility Registry System is a rich source of information.  Like just about every database, it is imperfect and doesn’t answer every question.  It has been a major undertaking modernizing a bunch of databases developed long ago by many different people with many different purposes.  Envirofacts gets the best data the Agency has into a useful format for internal and external users.  The process is in progress and sees frequent improvements. (YAY!)

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now as the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

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