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MDEP Deploys Distributed GIS Application
by Stuart Rich
St. George Consulting Group, Inc.

Since the 1970s, the State of Maine's Department of Environmental Protection (MDEP) has overseen the control and disposal of hazardous and waste products through its Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management (BRWM). In recent years, the bureau has sought to develop a better method for providing its staff with efficient and accurate access to the data needed to respond to spill events.

The Division of Response Services, one of six divisions under BRWM, provides round-the-clock management of oil, hazardous waste, and hazardous material spills through its Statewide staff of 25 "responders." Responders are the MDEP's first line of defense at the approximately 2,700 spill events that occur annually.

Through their efforts, hazardous material releases are contained and further contamination of the environment reduced. A wide array of equipment and significant financial authority help responders mobilize appropriate cleanup actions. Making the best use of these resources in the precious time immediately following a spill requires that responders make very quick assessments of the relative gravity of each situation. These assessments are based on answers to some of the following questions.

  • What is the nature of the material that has been spilled?
  • Are sensitive environmental areas nearby that should be protected?
  • Are there any public health risks nearby?
  • Have there been other spills in the area?
  • Does the individual involved with this spill have a history with MDEP?

In large measure, the effectiveness of the actions ordered is determined by responders' ability to evaluate these and many other questions. Responders also collect information about each spill event. This information, presented in a spill report, is entered into the MDEP system within 90 days of the spill event. Spill report information is used by other MDEP personnel to evaluate any changes in environmental risk, track the department's overall workload, and monitor cleanup costs and reimbursements.

The response reporting process was originally paper-driven. In the 1980s, it evolved into electronic formats. Despite various iterations, the process has been hampered by serious limitations stemming primarily from the completely office-bound nature of MDEP datasets.

Responders in the field gathered information without being able to relate the current spill event to past events or extenuating circumstances. Given the speed with which on-the-spot judgments must be made in such situations, this lack of access to data about past spills, geology, public health risks, or sensitive environmental areas in proximity to the current event could compromise responders' prescribed cleanup actions. Responders were unable to access GIS data while in the field and had to return to one of four offices--in Augusta, Bangor, Presque Isle, or Portland--to coordinate findings with GIS data. No integrated access to other MDEP databases was available because GIS was delivered in stand-alone applications that were not integrated with the other applications responders used.

HOSS users have access to integrated GIS information and live GPS point capture from within the application.

Working closely with BRWM, St. George Consulting Group, Inc. (SGCI), has developed the Hazardous Oil Spill System (HOSS). An enterprisewide database and GIS system, HOSS gives responders--whether in the field or at the office--access to a wide range of data. HOSS references existing MDEP datasets and provides more complete and accurate reports that are available to concerned parties throughout the system.

In the field, responders are equipped with ruggedized laptops that have been installed on special truck-mounted docking stations designed to stand up to the frequently adverse conditions of working outdoors in Maine. These laptops are configured to accept live GPS input from several different models of handheld GPS units. The software can retrieve stored GPS points from handheld units so that location data can be collected for spills that are inaccessible to vehicles.

At a spill site, responders using HOSS can access critical GIS data that directly impacts the effectiveness of the spill report. In addition to more accurately ascertaining the location of the spill, responders can quickly view the spill's physical proximity to nearby formations that might be particularly sensitive from a public health or environmental perspective.

For example, responders can determine how close a spill is to public drinking water supplies or sand and gravel aquifers. HOSS also allows responders to capture GPS points and images and display them at the site so that the spill can be mapped as accurately as possible. Back at the office, this information is directly synchronized with MDEP's enterprise business databases and enterprise geodatabase.

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