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Find toxic wastelands via Google Earth

EPA takes first step in effort to make data about polluted sites more accessible to online mapping applications and the public at large.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
ARLINGTON, Va.--The Environmental Protection Agency wants to make it easier for Google, Microsoft and other enterprising online mappers to spread the word about potentially hazardous sites in your neighborhood.

Agency representatives at a public meeting here on Wednesday unveiled what they billed as the first step in a new push to make the EPA's vast scientific data stores more readily accessible online for download and incorporation into popular applications like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth.

The agency's ultimate goal is to boost public awareness of its activities--with a loftier aim of improving public health and the environment in the process--by allowing federal agencies, companies and even mashup artists to get their hands on the data more easily. Such data can play a key role in everything from land-use planning to real estate transactions, they said.

"We're extremely excited about this," said Pat Garvey, one of the project's managers. "We think this is really going to advance public access."

The pilot piece of that effort, posted early Wednesday morning, is a single XML file containing information on about 1,600 locales relegated to the Superfund National Priorities List. As required by Congress since 1980, the EPA uses that list to locate, investigate and clean up the worst-offending landfills, chemical plants, radiation sites and other areas known or suspected of releasing contaminants, pollutants and other hazardous substances.

By the end of the year, the EPA hopes to expand its offerings to include data on at least 100,000 sites from across its many different regulatory programs, including hazardous waste storage and treatment sites, air pollution trends and toxic chemical releases.

"We would strongly like to encourage large mapping application companies to create environmental (layers), and we hope this data promotes that in giving (them) the right resources," Garvey said.

It was Google, in fact, that may have driven the EPA to pursue the project in the first place. Last year, the search giant approached the federal agency in a quest for data on the National Priorities List, most likely to embed in its maps in some fashion. (Google representatives did not respond immediately to requests for comment about their specific plans.)

That request prompted some EPA representatives to suggest making agency-wide data more readily accessible. At a September meeting, they decided to make the NPL data their inaugural effort, with more data expected to come.

The EPA wasn't the first to think of the idea. The U.S. Geological Survey already makes data available through its Web site in a variety of formats, including XML and RSS, prompting user mashups based on items like live earthquake data.

The EPA Web site already serves up a variety of data to the public, but getting to that information often requires a number of queries to separate databases. Sometimes companies even have to file cumbersome Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests to obtain certain data. By the time the EPA burns and ships off a compact disc to fulfill the queries, the data is often already out of date, Garvey said.

Now, anyone can access the XML file--no log-in required--and without the costs associated with fulfilling FOIA requests.

The EPA plans to continue updating a single XML file approximately once a month while archiving earlier versions in case users still wish to download them. Users may opt to sign up for e-mail updates alerting them of any changes to the files.

Agency representatives decided on the XML format because they viewed it as "very portable and translatable," but they're willing to entertain requests for other formats, said Dalroy Ward, who manages the project. The file includes the name, address and latitude-longitude coordinates of a site; the EPA program area in which it falls; and URLs to EPA Web sites providing additional information about the sites and programs in question.

"It's a significant step in my mind," said Larry Zarigoza, an official with the EPA's Superfund office, "to better understand what data we have that's out there."


Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Microsoft Virtual Earth.