Final Report: St. Louis: Monitoring Environmental Parameters in a Community at RiskEPA Grant Number: R828211
Title: St. Louis: Monitoring Environmental Parameters in a Community at Risk
Investigators: Forlaw, Blair
Institution: East - West Gateway Coordinating Council
EPA Project Officer: Hiscock, Michael
Project Period: May 1, 2000 through October 1, 2001
Project Amount: $335,000
RFA: Environmental Monitoring for Public Access and Community Tracking (EMPACT) (1999) RFA Text | Recipients Lists
Research Category: Environmental Statistics , Water , Ecosystems , Air , Ecological Indicators/Assessment/Restoration
The overall objective of this research project was to improve communication and trust between citizens and government officials to address environmental problems more effectively by improving their access to environmental data. The specific objectives of this research project were to: (1) develop a community-based information and communications technology that would enable residents of urban neighborhoods to monitor and act on environmental conditions in their communities; (2) promote understanding among citizens regarding the health and ecological risks associated with identified environmental problems so that they can minimize and avoid exposure for themselves and their families; (3) facilitate the sharing of time-relevant information and information-management tools and techniques among the multiple political jurisdictions serving the urban core; (4) test techniques developed in Massachusetts for the remediation of soil in residential areas that contain lead; (5) assist potential investors in accessing the information they need to make informed decisions that can lead to the revitalization of these distressed neighborhoods; and (6) encourage ongoing public-private partnerships that enable sustainable improvement in these neighborhoods.
The Community Environmental Resource Program (CERP) is an information system designed to help citizens, businesses, and policymakers better understand the local environmental issues in St. Louis, MO, and East St. Louis, IL. The CERP system provides access to information on environmental problems in local neighborhoods, how those problems are changing over time, and what is being done about them.
CERP was created under an Environmental Monitoring for Public Access and Community Tracking (EMPACT) grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), received in 2000. As the name implies, the EMPACT Program was designed to support a limited number of eligible cities in the use of advanced and innovative technologies to monitor environmental conditions and provide and communicate environmental information to the public. Most of the EMPACT grants were devoted to the monitoring and interpretation of real-time data such as water pollution in a river or air pollution in a community.
CERP is slightly different. It monitors four categories of environmental concern that had been identified as primary environmental concerns during a series of U.S. EPA-sponsored “listening tours” in both cities. These four categories included: lead paint, abandoned buildings, brownfields, and illegal dumping of refuse and waste.
CERP incorporates basic introductions to environmental issues, information about environmental programs, and spatial data on neighborhood conditions. It utilizes the Internet to deliver timely information that is useful to both local government officials and citizens. The system is designed to allow access to information using a computer-generated map so that one can learn, for example, about the vacant buildings in a given neighborhood or within 500 ft of a given location.
EMPACT required that local partnerships be established to implement the proposal. In the St. Louis region, that partnership involved two municipalities, two counties, and two states. Citizens, government officials, and nonprofits from both sides of the Mississippi River were invited to participate in this research project. The partnership was coordinated through the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, the region’s planning organization and council of governments.
The CERP research project highlights the public policy challenges of regional cooperation and spatial data sharing. It also addresses the technical challenges of creating an easy-to-use, Web-based map that presents environmental data in a way that can be used effectively by both citizens and government officials.
The St. Louis team approach was to deliver information about the four categories of environmental information using both low-tech and high-tech approaches.
Low Technology Communication. Traditionally, neighborhood residents in St. Louis and East St. Louis receive health and community information at meetings and/or in newsletters and flyers distributed at public and private gathering locations. Because many of these residents lacked familiarity with and/or access to the Internet, it made sense to convey information about environmental problems using these low-tech approaches. East-West Gateway hired two outreach specialists who assembled information and prepared/distributed newsletters on both the four priority topics and other environmental issues of immediate concern.
High Technology Communication. The second approach involved the assembly and delivery of background environmental information, using both a series of Web pages and an interactive Internet-based Geographic Information System (GIS) capability. This system was developed by the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) and other St. Louis city government staff, consultants, and interns. A cross section of citizens also provided ideas and feedback.
Data Integration. CERP does not create new environmental databases. Instead, it assembles and coordinates existing environmental data sets. Data about the environmental parameters of interest—lead paint, abandoned buildings, brownfields, and illegal dumping—are collected and maintained by various local, state, and federal agencies. This information has not been used fully by local stakeholders to avoid adverse health and ecological effects or to solve environmental problems because the existing data systems were fragmented, incomplete, and inaccessible to the public.
To address this situation and bring these data together in a usable format, CERP employed two main components: (1) Web-based maps tied to data sets that present environmental concerns in a way that can be easily understood; and (2) Web-based contextual information on environmental programs and conditions for each of four topics in St. Louis and East St. Louis. The CERP designers developed and utilized three primary functionalities to implement the CERP system: mapping tools, display (on/off layers) tools, and search functions.
To meet research project goals, data were gathered from various sources. Gathering data from two different state, county, and city governments presented special challenges. Concerns about data accuracy, coordination, confidentiality, and ownership slowed the development of the system. Significant research was required to understand the meaning of and relationships between existing data sets. Integrating these data sets for Web-based querying and online mapping took many hours of data cleanup.
Information about the two cities is presented separately in the online mapping system. The lack of shared standards among departments and jurisdictions was the primary barrier to a fully integrated, seamless GIS system.
Design Process. The public process employed to design CERP involved a series of meetings with interested citizens and government officials to determine the best ways to convey timely environmental information. To help guide the design and development effort, there were periodic meetings of two advisory groups; one consisting primarily of local and state government officials and the second consisting of neighborhood representatives. Both groups' contributions were important to the evolution of the system.
Local residents also had the opportunity to learn more about how they could take steps to avoid environmental risks through a replication of the Dorchester (MA) Lead Safe Yard Project, which the partners undertook in East St. Louis. This replication included soil sampling in situ by public health officials followed by a coordinated community and resident education campaign regarding risk avoidance and remediation. Staff of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's East St. Louis Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center assisted with the implementation of this part of the research project.
The applicant partners also emphasized establishing links between existing systems. In St. Louis, much of the data was available already, although it was spread among a wide range of city government departments and not easily accessible. It also was inconsistent in its format and depth of content. Consequently, time and energy were spent analyzing what was available and developing systems capable of accessing it in a common format.
In East St. Louis, much of the same information simply was unavailable. Consequently, the CERP process included a block-by-block survey of East St. Louis neighborhoods to document visible signs of vacancy and other environmental problems. This survey was conducted by project staff and interns, who did a "drive by" survey of neighborhoods to identify vacant lots and buildings. The elements of the survey included identification of the site as a "vandalized structure," "trash/dumping site," or "potential brownfield." Sites were categorized further by type, such as "single family house," "two-to-three-family house," "four-family flat," "apartment complex," "commercial," "industrial," or "institutional." When conditions of illegal dumping were observed, the type of trash was recorded, such as "garbage" or "construction material." The previous uses of potential brownfields also were estimated.
Each problem site was recorded with its address, approximate location, and other comments on the site’s condition and characteristics. The data were compiled into an Access database that served as the basis for the East St. Louis’ input to the CERP system.
Special CERP Activities in East St. Louis
As has been described earlier, CERP partners collected data, compiled health information, and made these available to residents of East St. Louis via the CERP Web Site. In addition, CERP staff partnered with other local and state agencies in the East St. Louis community as a founding member of the Metro East Lead Collaborative (originally called the East St. Louis Lead Collaborative Partnership). Members of this group, convened to address environmental health risks, included:
• Neighbors United for Progress.
• East Side Health District.
• St. Mary's Hospital.
• U.S. EPA.
• Army Corps of Engineers.
• U.S. Department of Agriculture.
• St. Clair County Health Department.
• Illinois Department of Public Health.
• St. Clair County Department of Intergovernmental Grants, which managed an interior residential lead abatement program funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The partners shared information and developed joint communication strategies to inform residents about lead in soil and other ground contamination in East St. Louis and adjacent disadvantaged municipalities.
In addition, under the leadership of the East St. Louis Action Research Project (an initiative of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), CERP implemented a demonstration project for lead safe yards in East St. Louis. Overall, 30 homes were selected in two neighborhoods for this pilot project. These homes were in areas of aging and deteriorated housing stock, where significant numbers of small children live and play.
Eight of the homes were in the Alta Sita neighborhood and 22 homes were in the Lansdowne neighborhood. In each case, homes that met program criteria (of appropriate age, building material, and location) were selected in cooperation with local neighborhood organizations. Both neighborhoods already had improvement plans in place and felt that exterior lead soil containment was consistent with their community-based goals. The staff of the Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center and neighborhood residents canvassed the area to identify interested homeowners.
Each selected house was given a drip line improvement. This consisted of cleaning a 3-ft perimeter of the house and trenching the soil. Not every house was treated on all four sides because architectural features (such as walkways or fencing), impervious surfaces (such as driveways), or other hazards (e.g., unchained animals, extensive poison ivy) sometimes prevented access to a part of the drip line. Six to 8 in of mulch were applied over the prepared soil. Appropriate bushes were planted about every 6 ft around the perimeter.
Based on the experiences of the Lead Safe Yard Project in Dorchester, MA, the CERP partners intended for the mulch to prevent any hazardous elements near the soil surface from being disturbed and transferred to children or pets. The plants—especially once matured—were expected to provide an attractive blockade to keep the drip line from being disturbed.
Approximately 24 students and staff members from the university worked over the weekend of March 8-10, 2002, in the Alta Sita neighborhood. Inclement weather—both rain and snow flurries—did not deter the volunteer workers. A local church was utilized as a base camp for the activity, and vans with the needed landscaping and other equipment and supplies were dispatched to the various work sites.
At the church, CERP staff briefed the students on lead-safe practices in working with likely contaminated soil such as keeping hands clean, wearing appropriate clothing, not eating or smoking at the work site without washing hands first, and changing/washing clothes after working.
Twenty-five students and staff members performed the same tasks in the Lansdowne neighborhood over the weekend of April 19-21, 2002. In many instances in this neighborhood, extensive cleanup was required before the drip line improvements could be made. Students removed several loads of trash and other debris from the properties.
Residents reacted very positively to the information that was provided to them about the hazards of lead contamination, and were appreciative of the yard improvements that could help them and their children avoid these risks. Not only were their yards made safer, but also the new landscaping gave a neat and clean appearance that boosted neighborhood pride. University students and staff gained valuable experience in lead-safe practices, and they enjoyed having the opportunity to assist with this serious environmental health problem. It was a team effort that worked.
A major initial challenge in the research project was gaining access to the many sources of environmental data that exist at all three levels of government and with some additional nonprofits. This involved gaining not only a general knowledge of the kinds of data, but also details concerning specific file formats, update schedules, privacy constraints, and definitions of variables.
The CERP research project partners hired Leslye McCoy, a Coro Fellow, for 1 month in May 2000. When her term expired, Sarah von Shrader, a recent college graduate who was available for the summer, was hired to continue to examine the myriad data sources. As a result, two extremely useful reports were produced by the end of the fall of 2000, each pointing to the extent of the data collection challenge. Primary responsibility for environmental information varies widely with the locality and the state.
Lead Paint. This is the responsibility of the Health Department in St. Louis, with inspection and remediation roles also played by the Building Division within the Department of Public Safety and the Community Development Administration. In East St. Louis, Illinois' Department of Public Health conducts clinics and inspections, which then are entered into the national STELLAR system and forwarded to the East Side Health District. A spreadsheet is maintained by the St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Office for homes remediated with a HUD grant. The Illinois Department of Public Health also has measured lead in soil over time.
Brownfields. Toxic or hazardous conditions are familiar to local government economic development officials on both sides of the river. However, the prime source of knowledge comes from two individuals associated with the Army Corp of Engineers—Debbie Roush in East St. Louis and Kevin McGrew—on loan to the SLDC in St. Louis. Both of these individuals have served in leadership roles in the bistate Brownfields Showcase Initiative.
Illegal Dumping. Inner cities often are the unwilling recipients of both hazardous and nonhazardous waste that is left in alleys and vacant lots. Often it comes from a contractor unwilling to drive the distance or pay the fee required by a landfill. It also may be generated by a homeowner or business that cannot be bothered to dispose of batteries, oil, chemical fluids, and similar material in the proper fashion. In Illinois, the state EPA, the St. Clair County Health Department, and the East Side Health District all get involved. In St. Louis, there are four groups involved: the Citizens Service Bureau, the Trash Task Force, the Health Department, and the local office of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The police and fire departments occasionally get involved as well.
Abandoned Buildings. Vacant and abandoned buildings are major concerns in both cities, especially where they are perceived as magnets for vagrants and delinquents or when they can be firetraps. When such a building is next door, it can impact the value of one’s home and the ability to receive insurance. Unfortunately, approximately 6,000 buildings have been classified as vacant and vandalized in St. Louis, and about 1,300 buildings in East St. Louis have similar designations.
In St. Louis, the identification, condemnation, and (where necessary) demolition is the responsibility of the Building Division within the Department of Public Safety. The Land Reutilization Authority gets involved with regard to many of the 2,000 foreclosed buildings under its domain. In East St. Louis, the Department of Regulatory Affairs oversees vacant buildings. The Neighborhood Law Office, as well as the Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center, are nonprofits concerned with vacant buildings as well.
In some cases, access to data was relatively easy, as in the case of the vacant building data and condemned building data in St. Louis. In other cases, however, existing data proved inaccessible, such as that kept by the St. Louis Citizens Service Bureau in an antiquated database that has not yet been converted to a system that has open database connectivity. In still other cases, environmental information was accessible only after considerable work was done to gather it and modify its formatting.
In East St. Louis, the available data were significantly less than in St. Louis. Consequently, a decision was made to conduct a survey in East St. Louis to collect vacant building and illegal dumping information. Using a combination of staff, interns, fellows from the Coro Midwestern Center, and East St. Louis building inspectors, the streets of East St. Louis were driven and all findings recorded. An Access database was built to allow these data to be kept current. The accuracy of this information, however, remains in question because the St. Clair County organization responsible for foreclosed houses can demolish homes without always obtaining a permit. Consequently, maintaining accurate records was, and remains, difficult.
The CERP research project successfully ended with the expiration of the grant in April 2003. As a result of this project, the cities of St. Louis and East St. Louis now have an operational Web page that is designed to convey valuable information about four priority environmental topics. The CERP research project produced a sophisticated system that balances ease-of-use with the technical requirements to make such a system work.
Residents of the both cities are better equipped to make informed decisions about avoiding health risks and solving environmental problems. Local public officials charged with protecting the well being of these communities have better access to a wide array of time-relevant environmental data. Crossjurisdictional barriers to planning and problemsolving have been reduced.
Of special interest is the Internet-based GIS system that provides access to a mix of data useful to citizens in both communities. Few other local or regional governments have as much online data as is now available for citizen review in St. Louis and East St. Louis. Equally important, the equipment and skills acquired through the CERP research project by the St. Louis Community Information Network and Planning and Urban Design Agency staff have enabled the development of other online GIS applications. For example, St. Louis' Census Web Site (http://stlouis.missouri.org/census/ Exit ) now utilizes data and mapping capabilities developed through CERP.
Valuable lessons also were learned when researching data sets and information availability between the two cities. Several differences were uncovered, and the planners were successful in sharing both processes and solutions that had worked elsewhere. For example, vacant building data were important to users, but not readily available in East St. Louis. As part of the CERP process, a team was formed to conduct a windshield survey of East St. Louis parcels in coordination with the East St. Louis Department of Regulatory Affairs. This survey was modeled after the annual Vacant and Vandalized Building Survey conducted by the St. Louis Building Division. As a result, East St. Louis received valuable help in building electronic data files and creating a data set of information it never had previously.
The experience of working on the CERP research project thus fostered regional collaboration, and created new capabilities in both partner cities of St. Louis and East St. Louis. The CERP process also facilitated a growing partnership between the governments and their constituents related to these topics. Several meetings were held with government officials and citizen groups, including neighborhood outreach sessions and project review meetings.
As this report is written, it is premature to conclude the full impact of the CERP system. Because the initial grant request to the U.S. EPA was scaled back at the outset of this research project, the proposed evaluation component was eliminated. Thus, there has not been an opportunity to observe the extent to which the system will provide information that is useful to neighborhood residents over time.
In addition, because of the delay in obtaining GIS data and procuring a GIS consultant with ArcIMS and Cold Fusion skills, the mapping element of the system was not completed as soon as originally planned. Consequently, the complete system only recently has been rolled out, and knowledge of its availability is just beginning to be communicated to citizens and other users. Although the planners believe that the system, as designed and developed, will prove valuable to citizens, businesses, developers, and government officials, no data have been compiled yet to confirm those beliefs. Nevertheless, optimism remains high, as considerable enthusiasm has been expressed in the various focus groups and meetings during the design and development process.
As the EMPACT Program closes at the U.S. EPA and the local CERP grant ends,
sustainability of CERP remains a question. St. Louis' Community Information
Network expects to update statistics periodically for St. Louis. Interest in
updating the East St. Louis data on the part of city officials, the Neighborhood
Technical Assistance Center, and/or the Neighborhood Law Center still is to
be determined. Any major enhancements likely will depend on identifying additional
funds with which to build the next phase.
One possible direction for CERP has been to expand the categories of information, thereby creating a regional environmental information gateway. Alternatively, CERP could fold into an existing regional environmental organization such as Choose Environmental Excellence (http://www.ceegr.org/ Exit ).
However CERP is sustained, the initiative clearly will impact the St. Louis and East St. Louis communities through the increased environmental information that is available, the online mapping capabilities that have been created, and the multijurisdictional partnerships that have been established.
Most systems development projects encounter challenges, especially when conflicting objectives need to be resolved, resources are limited, staff turnover is a reality, and local governments in two different states are involved. The lessons experienced will be familiar to many; however, they are useful to remember, especially by any community that might be interested in pursuing a similar endeavor. The last portion of this report documents some of the important lessons learned during the development of CERP.
The Easier the Final System Is for the User, the Harder It Is To Create. Perhaps the biggest challenge in the entire CERP research project was finding the proper balance between ease of use and technological sophistication. CERP could have produced a system with simple, static maps that had been created previously and saved as a digital image. This would have made design and development of the system much easier. Based on input from the community outreach effort and the nature of the target audience, it seemed important to allow users to create their own maps interactively. Thus, the system was designed to give the user the ability to decide what data to display, what geographic features to display, what data items to search for, and what geographic areas to focus on.
This kind of a complicated system required individuals with GIS and Cold Fusion development skills. It also became evident that dealing with four topic areas and two cities would result in lots of combinations and permutations. The consultant would make a change for one topic/city, and then would have to make changes for all of the other alternatives. Software bugs became the order of the day. Most of these were resolved, but it took time.
Intergovernmental Partnerships Are Challenging. There is much to be said for partnerships among different organizations. They have the ability to bring together diverse talent, resources, and perspectives. However, when the partnership involves two local governments situated in two different counties and two different states, as well as a regional quasi-government organization and two regions of U.S. EPA, challenges can multiply.
The real challenge in developing a true partnership in this research project was convincing various government constituencies of the benefits of sharing information. It was accepted from the start that certain environmental functions were conducted by different groups in each city, county, and state. In practice, however, it quickly became apparent that the multitude of policies and procedures, together with the varied willingness to cooperate among the many government entities, created a confusing situation at times.
Internal communications also were an ongoing concern. Electronic mail solved this problem in part, but not to everyone’s satisfaction. Perhaps part of the problem stemmed from the absence of a champion for the research project in Illinois, and a sense on the part of some in Illinois that they were not sufficiently involved. To some extent, this was inevitable in that each of the three organizations had different responsibilities in the research project.
Change Is Inevitable and Causes Delays. In developing the original timeline, the partners did not fully factor in the relatively slow pace at which government decisionmaking and procurement processes often move. As a result, the research project seemed delayed from the outset, and considerable effort was needed to complete the development tasks by the end of the grant period. Staff turnover complicated this research project in all three jurisdictions.
Data Is Controversial. There is a natural tension that exists between those who believe as much data as possible should be disseminated to the public and those that worry that the public release of such data, especially in an easy-to-use format, is dangerous. The reasons for their concern include the fact that the data could provide ammunition for community debate, be used in lawsuits against the government, be misunderstood, or be politically sensitive. In the case of CERP, these issues arose throughout the process. Although some of the issues ultimately were resolved, others were not and it limited the partners' ability to deliver the data in as complete a format as originally anticipated.
From the outset, it was clear that some environmental data would be sensitive. Thus, some information, such as individual sites with high lead paint levels, was shown only at the aggregate level, not the specific address level.
Despite this caution, a number of data issues still arose. For example:
• Some seemingly harmless information only could be obtained by filing a Freedom of Information Act request on a case-by-case basis.
• Lawyers were concerned with listing the names of property owners who had participated in Voluntary Clean Up Programs and for whom the property had been brought into compliance.
• Some lawyers even were concerned about publishing St. Louis' understanding of historical land uses. Their worry was that if a dry cleaners, for example, had been at the site 50 years ago, and hence might be a brownfields indicator, the city could be liable if that information proved to be incorrect.
• St. Clair County officials were concerned with posting standard public information regarding land use, ownership, and assessed value on the Internet. Their rational was that some people might not understand the data and be misled, and others might become targets of illicit business people. They also argued that if local governments had not participated in the county program, they should not be allowed to benefit by inclusion on the site.
Environmental information is sensitive and can be misinterpreted. Older communities have a legitimate concern if they are perceived as having a large array of environmental problems. Such a situation could make it harder to attract investment. Deciding what information should be on the Internet, and in what detail, is a governance issue that needs to be examined continually. There are clearly arguments on both sides of the issue. The CERP research project invariably wrestled with the issue, but did not resolve it.
If You Build It, They Still May Not Come. Simply creating an innovative and sophisticated system is not enough. If it is to be used by neighborhood residents, especially non-middle class residents, it needs to be promoted.
It is evident that less affluent neighborhoods tend to have less access to and understanding of the Internet. Moreover, even where there is access to the Internet, reading skills may present a challenge for some. With that in mind, the research project devoted considerable time to flyers, newsletters, and attendance at community-based meetings where environmental issues were discussed. East-West Gateway took the lead in the preparation and distribution of this material.
In theory, one of the beauties of the Internet is that systems can be delivered that combine simple, clear information for those who are satisfied with the basics and greater technical information for those who want more details. The challenge was to find a way of presenting information of use both to ordinary citizens and more sophisticated citizens, city officials, and business investors.
An audio/video component to the Web ultimately might prove to be more effective, especially in dealing with those for whom television comes more easily than reading. Resources did not allow the CERP partners to build this functionality into the system.
Find a Champion. The success of a complicated research project such as CERP, especially when it involves a multijurisdictional partnership, needs a visible champion who is committed to the project and willing to make it a priority.
In the case of CERP, there are some concerns that it may be hard to keep going in the absence of a champion. In St. Louis, hopefully the Community Information Network can play that role, pushing the various departments to keep things updated. Prospects are less positive in East St. Louis, however, unless somebody within or outside of the city government can get excited about CERP.