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DEQ maps allow public to zero in on potential hazardous sites

Did you know there are two hazardous waste sites within one mile of the Capitol? That there are 11 within two miles? How about that there are seven recycling facilities within two miles of the Capitol? Or that there are 12 vacant lots in that same area?
With the Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) new online GIS mapping feature, statewide information like that is a point-and-click away using your computer. The interactive maps — GIS stands for Geographic Information System — are a compilation of information gathered by DEQ to regulate air- and water quality, waste programs and underground storage tanks. The data are overlayed on maps that are fully customizable.
Curious how many sites handling hazardous waste are near your child’s school? A few button clicks later, the map is zoomed in on the school and any hazardous waste sites are displayed. Or gas stations. Or landfills. Or government buildings. Or dry cleaners. Or whatever else you tell it to show you.
DEQ Director Steve Owens says the idea for the online maps sprang out of that exact idea — how could parents easily see what potential health risks their children are near every day? The information was available before, though gathering it all was a tedious process, as was making a curious parent drive downtown to examine any relevant documents.
“It’s kind of a keyhole you can look through to know where you can go next to get information,” he said. “We just believe here, as a matter of philosophy, the public has a right to this information and a right to know what’s in their neighborhoods.”
The interactive maps also fit into Governor Napolitano’s focus on children’s health, part of which is the Children’s Environmental Health Project, which aims to reduce the exposure kids have to environmental risks and contaminants.
“We’re hopeful that this site will give the citizens of Arizona… additional tools to have some involvement in environmental issues that affect our kids,” Mr. Owens said.
Done on a shoe-string budget
The mapping utility was put together over a span of about 18 months and went live in November. A portion of a $250,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for environmental information technology was used to construct the interactive maps.
“This was done as much on a shoe-string budget as we could make it,” Mr. Owens said.
Victor Gass, one of the DEQ programmers who helped build the GIS map, said the utility incorporates three different sets of data: general information, such as roads, rivers, schools and political boundaries, from the statewide GIS system; internal permit and licensing information from AZURITE, the Arizona Unified Repository for Informational Tracking of the Environment; and in-house graphical overlays showing various air quality zones and environmental clean-up sites.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all,” he said. “We had to make it fit our needs.”
Creating the maps, Mr. Gass said, couldn’t have been done without cooperation from the state cartographer, who oversees the statewide GIS system, and GIS coordinators from other governmental bodies.
He said a goal for the mapping system in the future will be fully integrated GIS maps between all governmental agencies.
“That data-sharing direction is critical for us long-term,” Mr. Gass said, explaining that the more information available to the public in one place, the easier it will be for them to find what they are looking for.
Mr. Owens said there is no shortage of data to make available for the maps — the problem was figuring out what information was the most important and how to make the different “layers” interact with the map.
There is still plenty of information Mr. Owens said the department hopes to make available to the public through the maps. In the future, he said the goal is to not only give Web surfers the basic information about a specific site on the map — say, the name and address of a company that produces large quantities of hazardous waste — but to provide up-to-date data, like permit status, violations and what materials are produced.
The map’s potential, Mr. Owens said, is bound only by how much time and effort is put into improving it.
“We’ve got a ways to go — I don’t know if it’ll ever be finished because you can add more and more data,” he said. “We would love to be in a position to put everything possible on this Web site that the public has a right to.”

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