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Information Management for Environmental Clearance

Posted by Frank Orr on Oct 22, 2013

Effective information management is instrumental to the success of any major project governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other state or local environmental regulations.  From collecting data in the field to managing data for impact analysis to archiving the project data record, good data management and collaboration practices are essential to satisfying NEPA requirements, working efficiently as a team of experts, and to ensuring that the process and outcomes are defensible if challenged in court.

A well-designed and implemented geographic information system (GIS) is a powerful solution for managing information throughout the environmental project lifecycle. After a bit of introduction on NEPA, we highlight the contributions a GIS can make at each phase of a NEPA or similar project.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The NEPA was signed into law on January 1, 1970. The Act establishes national environmental policy and goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment and provides a process for implementing these goals within federal agencies and for programs making use of federal funding. Essential elements of the NEPA decision making process include:

  • Assessment of the social, economic, and environmental impacts of a proposed action or project
  • Analysis of a range of reasonable alternatives to the proposed project, based on the applicants defined purpose and need for the project
  • Consideration of appropriate impact mitigation: avoidance, minimization and compensation
  • Interagency participation: coordination and consultation
  • Public involvement including opportunities to participate and comment
  • Documentation and disclosure

Assessment of Impacts

Assessment of impacts begins with collecting the data necessary to quantify those impacts. Current technology allows the development of field data collection workflows and applications using the entire span of Trimble GPS collection hardware in addition to Apple and Android tablets and smartphones and ruggedized laptops. The first step is to identify data collection requirements and parameters and develop data models and data collection workflows that best suit the accuracy requirements, data demands, geographic location, and technology availability/preference. Workflows can be developed that update data in real time via a wireless connection or update when the device is returned to the office.

With properly collected data, impacts analysis can be performed via automated workflows that allow revisitation of analysis as data and designs evolve.  These automated workflows can dramatically cut the costs of change orders and simultaneously document the analysis performed in case of future challenge. Once the workflows have been established and vetted with key stakeholders, the project team can be sure that the results of the workflows are accurate, consistent, and reliable.

Analysis of Alternatives

NEPA ArchitectureAlternatives are generally developed in some sort of computer-aided drafting (CAD) software. To analyze the impacts of each alternative, Critigen develops automated workflows to translate CAD data for analysis in GIS and GIS data layers for reference in CAD. This allows repeatable, consistent and nearly on-demand analysis of changes to designs. Commonly used CAD and design management tools (e.g. Bentley ProjectWise) even allow direct integration to the GIS to create a fully-automated, hands-off process so that current data is always available in both the GIS or CAD environments.


Impact Mitigation

In many NEPA projects, some impacts are unavoidable and must be mitigated. By implementing and adhering to a comprehensive data management plan, the data required for making defensible mitigation recommendations will be available to the project team in a format that they can easily use and understand. Utilizing standard data formats and enterprise class GIS can make it easy to document mitigation alternatives graphically and distribute to the project team and the public via hardcopy maps or web-based mapping applications.

Interagency Participation

All major NEPA projects involve a variety of geographically distributed stakeholders, including members of a consultant team and participants from local, state, and federal agencies. To maintain consistency and provide effective collaboration, an enterprise GIS can be integrated with other software solutions such as Microsoft SharePoint to provide the project with a “one-stop shop” for project artifacts and a single, authoritative database of record. This collaborative space must be hosted in an environment that is easily accessible to all stakeholders. Likewise, it should be managed in such a way as to maximize interaction and collaboration throughout the project. In this way, problems and issues can be identified and addressed early in the process, and the final product will be free of any surprises.

Public InvolvementPublic Sharing of NEPA Alternatives

The public must be informed of and be able to comment on proposed alternatives and the associated impacts to the natural and built environment for the project to gain approval. A centralized GIS can assist in providing consistent and compelling cartographic products and web-based mapping applications through which the public can develop a complete and intuitive understanding of the proposed alternatives, impacts, and suggested mitigation.


Documentation and Disclosure

Finally, NEPA projects require complete documentation of the findings of the process in order for decision makers to approve the final alternatives and proposed mitigation of impacts. The document must be clear and persuasive, with effective and easily-understood graphics and maps. Using data management practices and cartography standards developed and approved early in the project, the NEPA team will be able to quickly produce a final report and have complete confidence in their analysis and findings. By developing and following a comprehensive data management plan, the final database of record will be populated with well-documented and defensible data, data that can be easily accessed by concerned parties in the event of any challenges to the project moving forward.

Need Help?

Critigen has supported projects requiring environmental clearance for decades, providing upfront help with data standards and data management planning, data management infrastructure and direct data collection, analysis and management on behalf of architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms. Critigen can bring existing analysis tools, cloud-based collaborative systems and domain expertise to most projects with NEPA or environmental clearance requirements. Contact us today.

Author Info

Frank Orr, Transportation Industry Manager
Frank Orr
Transportation Industry Manager
+1 303.885.4781

Frank has been applying spatial information management technology to the design, development, and operation of critical infrastructure for over 16 years. Frank helps clients leverage cutting-edge geospatial solutions to answer questions, solve problems, and inform stakeholders, while demonstrating measurable return on investment.