Saturday, October 20, 2007

WLA 2007: What's Toxic in Your Neighborhood?

"It is exciting to have a real crisis on your hands, when you have spent half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment." - Margaret Thatcher on the Falklands campaign, 1982

I work at a federal depository library with a collection of over 1.5 million technical reports of research funded by the EPA, DOD, DOE, DOT, NASA and other government agencies; I attended this session to learn how to better use our resources and serve our patrons. I also have a background in conservation biology, so this topic was right up my alley.

Michael Watkins, Head of Government Documents at UW-Oshkosh's Polk Library, did a great job of connecting what could be seen as 'dry data' to his own personal history as a child growing up in Oshkosh, as well as local, national and world history. He also shared a keen understanding of the many interacting and competing interests that come into play when addressing environmental issues, including jobs and economics, human and non-human health, property rights, recreation and tourism, and the future.

Historical context:

  • 1959 - Wisconsin cranberry crop abandoned or seized, due to pesticide scare
  • 1984 - Union Carbide in Bhopal India - 5,000 people killed from release of methyl isocyanate
  • 1984 - Similar release at sister plant in West Virginia
  • 1986 - "Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know" Act - requires reporting of presence of certain regulated chemicals, as well as accidental releases into the environment
  • 1990 - Pollution Prevention Act - strengthened requirements
  • 2007 - EPA budget shifts, half of EPA regional libraries closed, cutting back on programs like TRI


Watkins demonstrated using LandView 6 software to access online data sources, and search for data on air pollutants, hazardous waste sites, and toxic releases by geographic location (zip code or city/state) or company (current or defunct), down to city block level . LandView is the result of a cooperative effort by the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In Madison, the LandView 6 DVDs are held at the Madison Public Library's main downtown branch, or the Wisconsin Historical Society library. The software is in the public domain, so it "can be copied, used and distributed freely without the requirement for royalty payments or further permissions."

Watkins asks us to watch out for any changes in data access over time. In an era of EPA library closings and document losses, our legal "right to know" may do us little good, if the data just isn't there anymore.

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