Sunday, June 26, 2011

Digging Back

Among the many jobs I had before becoming a geography professor was one I call "dry-cleaner inspector." My actual titles at that time were "Geographer" and "Assistant Regulatory Analyst" in the Cincinnati office of a global engineering firm that was then called Dames & Moore. I actually worked on a variety of projects, but the most common assignments were Phase I investigations for property transfer.

Simply put, when clients purchased commercial property, they would employ us to perform due diligence to determine whether the property could be expected to harbor environmental hazards, such as soil contaminated by an old spill or material leaking from a buried chemical or fuel storage tank. This kind of research is necessary because financial and legal liability for such contamination can extend to both prior and current owners of a property. (This may seem unfair, but it entirely necessary to eliminate the "shell game" approach that polluters have used to escape liability in the past.) Our Phase I investigations involved documentary research, interviews, and site visits. If any of these avenues suggested likely contamination sources, we would recommend a Phase II investigation that would include sampling in relevant media -- air, soil, water and/or building materials.

The properties I investigated included warehouses, garages, offices, and manufacturing plants, but at least 20 of the properties were dry cleaners, in about 10 different states. The common thread for these was a Cincinnati law firm that represented a British client that in turn was buying hundreds of dry cleaning operations throughout the United States. I cannot remember the name and you have never heard of it, because they always left the local name and managers in place.

When I was doing this work in 1989-1990 (and part-time in south-most Texas about four years later), all of the relevant documents existed on paper. Therefore when I first learned about a project, my first step was to make travel arrangements to visit both the store itself (usually there were two or three clustered in the same city) and to visit local and state offices that would have the records I needed. (This contributed nicely to my County Map Project, which was actually inspired by other workers in the same office.) My second step would be to make phone calls to order certain materials that I knew could be mailed to me. These included topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey and Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. I would also order any aerial photography I could find, primarily through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These resources would give me some understanding of the literal "lay of the land" around a property and also some clues about current and past uses in and around the property that might pose environmental hazards. For example, the fire insurance maps might show PCB oil or asbestos as a good thing, because they were associated with fire safety, though we now think of them principally in terms of the serious health risks they pose.

I apply this experience to a student exercise in my introductory environmental geography course and in more detail in an upper-level course on environmental regulations. For better or worse, many parts of a Phase I investigation can now be done online. I think "better" because of the convenience, efficiency, and completeness of record searches that previously required a lot of time and expense and a little bit of luck in finding the right office. I think "worse," though, because the availability of online tools has pushed the price of Phase I work so low that many such investigations are done by people who never visit the facilities they are investigating ... and the only serious problem I ever found in a Phase I was something I discovered during my site visit that was not in any of the paper records.

For teaching purposes, though, the online materials are terrific, and have become much more convenient even in the past few years. The US Environmental Protection Agency continues to improve online access, bringing a lot of databases together in the Envirofacts portal. Many of these were previously linked from the Surf Your Watershed portal, which remains an excellent source for information about regional water quality and cooperating organizations.

Sanborn Maps were originally designed to guide the pricing of property insurance. They are very detailed and frequently updated, being most actively used during a period (late-19th through mid-20th centuries) of tremendous growth of industries that operated without meaningful controls on pollution. The maps can often be found in local libraries -- I actually required students in my Geography of Brockton course to study them. They are also available online, though at considerable expense. (At Dames & Moore I routinely paid $45 per sheet for photocopies, and online subscriptions today are quite expensive.) Users of the BSU Maxwell Library have access to the entire set of Massachusetts Sanborn maps; a link is provided on the Geography MaxGuide.

The textbook I use for the upper-level course (Ortolano's Environmental Regulation) is over a decade old but remains the most comprehensive explanation of the regulatory programs that are still in place to address environmental hazards in the United States.

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