Public Empowerment

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is committed to providing public access to environmental information. Working under the premise that an informed citizenry is fundamental to safeguarding the environment, WVDEP initiated its Public Empowerment Program. This program is designed to make WVDEP's information resources available to the public by capitalizing on the exploding popularity of the Internet. Through this initiative, citizens from home, work, or the public library can find out about toxic chemical releases near where they live, locate superfund sites, landfills, abandoned mine lands, and obtain other useful information.

The Public Empowerment Program was partly inspired by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986. EPCRA is based on the idea that citizens have a right to know about toxic chemicals being used and produced in their communities. As a part of ERCRA, certain manufacturers have to report to the Environmental Protection Agency information about the release and transfer of over 300 toxic chemicals into the air, water, and land. This Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) forms the basis of several key components of the on-line system developed by WVDEP.

The WVDEP has made a significant investment in information technology to facilitate its mission of environmental regulation and enforcement. Until recently, this investment benefited the public only indirectly by helping WVDEP do a better job. However, with the emergence of the internet as a popular medium for communication, we realized it was possible to provide a more direct service to the public.

The idea behind the Public Empowerment Program is simply to allow anyone, through the internet, to effectively borrow WVDEP's computer resources to obtain useful information about environmental quality. This approach offers the potential for overcoming several problems associated with making environmental data available to the public. First, environmental data come from a variety of sources and are stored in disparate formats that require significant processing time to ensure compatibility. Second, sophisticated and expensive hardware and software often are required to retrieve and analyze the data. Third, analysis software is typically difficult to learn and use. For example, the primary analysis software package used by WVDEP has over a thousand commands! For these reasons, we understood that most individuals, and many non-profit organizations and local governments, did not possess the time or financial resources to collect, process, store and analyze environmental databases that were supposed to be publicly available. Fortunately, members of the Technical Applications and Geographical Information Systems (TAGIS) unit at WVDEP had already devoted a significant amount of time to developing a Geographical Information System (GIS) -- an integrated database containing environmental, physical, demographic, and other information organized by geographical location. The challenge was to open up this system for use by the public.

As an example, if someone were interested in toxic chemical releases, they could select a particular company and receive a map showing the location of the facility, along with tables showing amounts of various chemicals released into the air, land and water over a seven year period. Using a mouse to click on a highlighted chemical name would bring up information on health risks associated with that chemical. A person could also select a particular chemical to see where in the state it was being released. A more sophisticated interface, written in Java, allows users to calculate total toxic releases within a given radius of a point, such as a town, or measure the distance from a chemical plant to a school.

We are continually extending the right-to-know concept to include online access to other data sources such as superfund sites, abandoned mine lands, landfill locations, and permit databases.