ArcWatch: Your e-Magazine for GIS News, Views, and Insights

September 2010

County Health Department Makes Brownfield Environmental Data Accessible

By Barbara Shields, Esri Writer

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Closed factories can be toxic and lower adjacent property values.

Elkhart County, Indiana, uses Esri's ArcGIS software to map brownfield or Superfund sites, industrial areas that must be environmentally evaluated before qualifying for reuse.

This helps county personnel and the public understand the histories of brownfield sites and rate their risk and impact to the environment. Elkhart County Health Department asked Symbiont, an engineering and consulting firm headquartered in West Allis, Wisconsin, to help expand access to the county's database and create a public Web site that allows citizens to search for data on hazards at brownfield sites, such as leaking underground storage tanks; see the data associated with a map; and locate potential at-risk areas. The health department dubbed the application e-Atlas.

Data is key to a successful environmental management program. For more than 20 years, Elkhart County built a paper-based database to support its Groundwater Protection Ordinance program. The program's purpose is to prevent water resources from becoming contaminated by industrial chemicals.

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Properties designated as brownfields are ugly and dangerous and can threaten the community's health.

In 2006, the county decided to reduce urban sprawl by redeveloping its brownfields and other underused sites and existing infrastructure. It applied for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) brownfield assessment grant and was able to create a map-based electronic data management solution. Symbiont and Elkhart's geographic information system (GIS) team went to work designing a brownfield inventory. For the foundation of the inventory database, the team used existing county groundwater protection data. This contained property information of facilities that used or stored hazardous materials as well as the environmental records of the most contaminated and neglected sites. The database inventory scope spanned 20 years for 5,000 facilities.

Converting the Files

Faced with 44 file drawers filled with inspection records and reports of complaints and state and federal actions, along with correspondence and miscellaneous information, the team converted 200,000 pages of paper-based records to digital format. The conversion process involved defining an index structure for cataloging and digitizing records. The documents were integrated with GIS by geocoding the facilities by their addresses.

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Elkhart County's e-Atlas, built on ArcGIS Server, is a Web-based brownfield inventory tool that shows environmental concerns such as abandoned facilities, leaking underground storage tanks, and tire waste sites.

Another step in the conversion work process was to put the records online. The team used Esri's ArcGIS Server technology to create a Web application that combined the inventory databases with GIS for mapping and analysis. This makes it possible for a visitor to the Web site to research a facility by selecting it on a map and clicking links to the facility's database records. The application makes it easy to view and research the data.

The value of a geodatabase for a brownfield analysis is the accumulation of geological data, such as slope, soil porosity, and hydrology; information about the presence of chemicals, wells, and tanks; as well as site usage histories such as waste producing industrial facilities. With GIS, all these environmental attributes can be visualized on a map.

Better Access and Usability

The system conversion has improved Elkhart's Groundwater Protection Ordinance program because GIS allows a community-wide picture to be generated. Health Department staff can easily pull up data layers about current land use and the proximity of community well fields to quickly see where water resources might be threatened. Facility relocations and transitions can also be managed to provide the appropriate frequency of inspections. Queries can be conducted to determine the need for inspections by township or municipality, thus improving time management in the program.

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GIS is useful for site remediation to see underground and aboveground tanks, stained soils, and other site hazards.

Staff time spent locating documents and records has decreased. What once took hours of searching through files now takes seconds in the GIS. The user types in an address or selects a location on the map and receives in-depth information about that location. The user also can run a query that brings up all similar sites or overlay data layers to easily view relationships. These capabilities set the foundation for putting GIS to work for a host of other county projects.

The e-Atlas application is accessible to the public via Elkhart's What's in My Backyard (WIMBY) Web portal. Here, citizens can get online, map-based information that shows community brownfields as well as other threats to the community. WIMBY helps the Health Department communicate with the public and provide information needed for EPA grant requests.

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WIMBY gives the public access to information for evaluating potential health risks in Elkhart County communities. This map shows leaking underground storage tanks (red dots) and toxic release inventory sites (green squares).

"GIS delivers an accessible brownfields inventory that really helps our customers with their EPA grant applications," says Ryan Eckdale-Dudley, Symbiont's GIS coordinator. "They can easily bring up information required for creating a case that qualifies them for project funding."

For more information, contact John Hulewicz, Elkhart County Health Department environmental health supervisor (e-mail:; telephone: 574-875-3391), or Ryan Eckdale-Dudley, GISP, GIS coordinator, Symbiont (e-mail:; telephone: 414-755-1131).

Learn more about Esri's GIS solutions for brownfields management at

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