Cool Data Tools: EPA Releases NEPAssist Mapper

May 2, 2012

EPA has tallied another homer in its long string of data-sharing innovations. A new data tool can help reporters and public find and visualize the important issues that come along with sometimes-obscure environmental impact reviews.

It's called NEPAssist. That's as in NEPA, the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, one of the foundations of US environmental law — and an underused tool for reporters who may want to pry open the worm-cans of local environmental stories. In essence, NEPA requires the government to study the environmental impact of major federal actions — as well as the impacts of alternatives, including doing nothing.

Over the decades, that has meant a lot of environmental impact statements (EISs) and similar studies. Many involve local projects or actions such as building a local dam or granting a permit to fill a wetland.

Environmental impact studies are often rich troves of complex information about how an environmental decision dovetails with the economic, political, demographic, and ecological fabric of a community. And they often involve public meetings, which are good places to gather comments and meet sources. And sometimes they become the basis for lawsuits. From a reporter's viewpoint, they are the gift that keeps on giving.

Reporters who live in the now — or whose story was due 10 minutes ago — may not be aware that there is actually a database of environmental impact statements going back to 2004 — a prime resource for investigative journalism. It is online and searchable.  But that is not the news.

What's new is that EPA's cool new data tool, NEPAssist, lets you take the information in the EIS database and visualize it geographically (e.g., you can see the outline of a wetland or aquifer on a map). Most importantly, though, NEPAssist maps EIS project information against a rich backdrop: layer after layer of geographic, demographic, environmental, and economic context.

The mappable layers are too many for the WatchDog to quickly count; they include the National Wetlands Inventory, FEMA flood maps, water quality and streamflow monitoring stations, railroads and airports, land cover and soil types, and poverty and ethnic demographics. And that's not all: you can draw your own map features on top of these maps, print them out, and give them to your publication's graphics department. Copyright-free.

NEPAssist is similar in some ways to EPA's environmental justice online mapping tool, now known as EJView — and can be used with it.