Imaging Takes on the Environment

Imaging systems not only cut down the use of paper, but also help states protect the environment and manage natural resources better.

by / November 30, 1996
State agencies that help protect our land, water and air and manage our natural resources have -- well -- an environmental problem.

The regulations they enforce to reduce pollution and to ensure the wise use of trees, minerals, water and land are generating huge amounts of paper. Businesses must send in forms and documents to show they are abiding by the latest state and federal environmental regulations. Departments of environmental protection and natural resources have to churn out copies of the same documents for lawyers, federal bureaucrats and the public. It adds up to a lot of consumed trees, not to mention the side effects of pollution from pulp production and land development for offices and warehouses to store the paper.

At the same time, paper generated by the permits and regulations consumes scarce government resources to cover the filing, distribution and analysis of the documents. For example, Iowa's Air Quality Bureau processes permits that allow the controlled emission of air pollution in the state. In 1996, the bureau will issue only 283 permits, but one application for a permit can run 7,000 pages.

The bureau received as many as 3 million pages of documents this year, all of which have to be carefully analyzed to ensure the state doesn't allow too much pollution into the air. "We were in a real bind because of all the paper," said Peter Hamlin, chief of the Air Quality Bureau. "We've had to rent warehouse space to help out with storage."

In Utah, where water is a precious natural resource, the story is the same. An individual or business just can't drill a well or tap into nearby surface water. They have to obtain the rights to use the water through a special process that's administered by the state's Division of Water Rights, in the Department of Natural Resources.

Since 1897, Utah has been tracking all state water rights and has on file 8 million pages of documents, all of which are open to public access. As environmental controls tighten and management of limited resources becomes more complex, the amount of regulation in this field can only grow.

To avoid a regulatory collapse brought on by too much paper, state agencies are turning to imaging technology to alleviate the burden of storing, retrieving, distributing and processing documents. Advances in client/server technology, object-oriented software, document management, workflow, relational databases, high-speed scanners, CD-ROM storage and the Internet make the job of protecting and regulating the environment more manageable.

In a report produced by Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources, potential imaging applications include state land records, permit applications, publications, hazardous site manifests, well logs, engineering drawings and permit application site plans, hunting and fishing licenses, staff training and public education.

Despite the numerous possibilities, imaging is a relative newcomer to the field of environmental protection and natural resources. While the number of installations is growing, the imaging applications now in operation are few and their scale is often quite large. Take, for example, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, which has installed a $7.5 million document imaging system to process documents for the statewide cleanup of underground storage tanks that are contaminating groundwater.

The project involved the complete reengineering of the department in charge of waste cleanup, and a massive backfile conversion of paper documents &endash; of which the state has more than 7 million relating to underground storage tanks alone. The system was built by Digital Equipment Corp., using high-speed Alpha servers, an Oracle database management system and Highland Technologies' Highview imaging and workflow software.

According to John Willmott, bureau chief of the department's information services, the imaging system will significantly advance the department's ability to process the authorization and reimbursement for storage tank removal. "That, in turn, speeds up the protection of Florida's environment," he said.

Florida's removal and cleanup of underground tanks is a state problem, funded by state legislation. In Iowa, issuing permits that allow the controlled emission of air pollutants is a federal mandate, conducted under the 1990 Clean Air Act. Fortunately, the act stipulates that large polluters have to pay states a fee based on the amount of air pollution released. From that fee the state can fund the use of technology, such as imaging, to manage the information gathered on polluters.

When the Air Quality Bureau made plans to use the funds for imaging, the industries that paid the fees demanded a cost-benefit analysis first, to ensure the project wouldn't end up as an expensive boondoggle. "The results showed that the system would pay for itself in less than two years by cutting our labor costs," remarked Hamlin.

The bureau installed a $1.5 million imaging system in November, built by Wang and Radian International, a technology firm specializing in environmental projects. The 175-user system consists of Wang's imaging and workflow software, Hewlett-Packard servers, a Cygnet jukebox, an Oracle database, PCs running Microsoft Windows and UNIX workstations.

Not only does the imaging system automate the distribution of the permit documents to the bureau's staff, but it also adds value by running some basic calculations based on data that is read by the system's optical character reading software. "It will calculate the potential emissions generated by an applicant based on the data they submit," said Hamlin. "It's going to save our permit reviewers a tremendous amount of time."

In Pennsylvania, imaging is helping the state track the "who, what, when and where" concerning hazardous municipal and industrial waste. The state's Bureau of Land Recycling and Waste Management has installed a $1.2 million document management system that uses imaging to convert documents on hazardous waste manifests and related fee collections -- worth $35 million annually -- into a database of information for environmental analysts.

The system, which serves 24 users, can also process incoming faxes, electronic data interchange files, mainframe reports and e-mail messages. The software, an object-based electronic document management product suite, was developed by Vantage Technologies, a firm recently purchased by Wang.

According to Bureau Chief Jeff Beatty, the system's biggest benefit is the way it speeds up the flow of information. "That time savings allows us to collect fees much faster than in the past," he said. It has also allowed analysts to spend more time analyzing information and less time searching for it. "It's liberated our analysts in terms of time. That's a positive experience for us."

Public access is another service that environmental and natural resource departments must provide. By linking imaging systems with the Internet, states can extend access far beyond what was ever thought possible. Utah's Division of Water Rights has begun putting documents on the World Wide Web at: .

Iowa's Air Quality Bureau plans to do the same. Though, as Hamlin remarked dryly, "I can't imagine a lot of people will want to read this stuff. Some of it's pretty boring."