Saying “informed decisions are the best decisions,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo recently unveiled a new application on the agency’s Web site that will help people learn about environment matters that affect their communities throughout the U.S.
Cuomo’s September 19 announcement generated both praise and criticism. While movie stars and professional environmental lobbyists strongly support the new effort, new-era environmentalists express serious concern.
Joining Cuomo at the launch of the new Web site was environmental activist and model Christie Brinkley; Dennis Hayes, organizer of Earth Day and president of the liberal Bullitt Foundation; and Greg Wetstone, director of programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Information is power,” said Hayes, “and HUD E-MAPS are designed to give new power to people who cannot afford high-priced lawyers to protect their children from environmental assaults.”
Ken Green, director of environmental studies for the Reason Public Policy Institute, agreed with Hayes on the importance of information. “The databases the E-MAPS application combines are truly huge, and to join them, as seamlessly as they’ve done, with mapping software, is impressive. It’ll make a fine research tool, for those with the knowledge to make use of it.”
But Green admits more concern than excitement over the E-MAPS application. “Misinformation is also power,” he warned, “but it’s the power to mislead.
“The actual information that the site offers is totally lacking in the context that would make it meaningful. It is very easy to see activists using the data from this site to scare people during efforts to prevent development, facility siting, business expansion, and so on.”
According to Hayes’ remarks at the Cuomo press conference, “Parents everywhere wonder whether their children’s drinking water is polluted, and few of us know what’s buried in our backyards. HUD E-MAPS will bring that information to everyone—including those in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods.” As RPPI’s Green points out, however, parents and homeowners will not find at the site information about the actual risk to their health, or the health of their children, from trace amounts of synthetic chemicals in their drinking water or from a sealed landfill that may be nearby.
The real beneficiaries of the new databases may be professional environmental activists, who can use the information to scare people about hypothetical risks. The NRDC, one of the groups on hand at the HUD press conference, orchestrated the Alar scare in 1989.
Addressing the HUD press conference, NRDC’s Wetstone hinted at the potential for misuse of the new data. “HUD E-MAPS have the potential to be a real asset to the environmental community and citizens around the country who are concerned about what’s happening environmentally in their neighborhoods.” [emphasis added]
The backbone for the application is HUD’s Community 2020 software, a CD-ROM that provides users with more than 600 types of census data for geographic areas as big as a state or as small as a block. Developed initially in 1997 as an internal project management tool, the software has won an Innovations in Government Award from the Ford Foundation and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
The software provides detailed, site-specific financial, managerial, demographic, and program information for virtually every entitlement or competitive grant awarded by HUD since 1992. It includes information on single-family and multi-family housing projects assisted by HUD’s Federal Housing Administration.
Through the HUD E-MAPS, Web users can obtain:
- site-specific information about all Superfund sites as well as descriptions of the laws and regulations governing the Superfund program.
- data that tracks which facilities use, manufacture, transport, or release some 650 toxic chemicals, including information about air emissions, surface-water discharges, releases to land, underground injections, and transfers to off-site locations.
- information about area businesses that generate, transport, treat, store, and dispose of hazardous waste, including the status of permits, regulatory compliance, and clean-up activities.
“Frankly, I’m surprised at some of what E-MAPS does offer in terms of demographic information,” said RPPI’s Green. “Some of it could easily be used by people who want to avoid living near certain kinds of other people. But, I suppose their lawyers will deal with that.”
Of more concern to Green, as RPPI’s lead environment analyst, is the security issues presented by some of the E-MAPS data. “By putting on the Web such detailed information about which chemicals a given site uses, one is handing potentially dangerous information to those who might do mischief.
“True, they’re not saying, ‘plant bomb here,’ but simply listing the fact that a company uses X thousand tons of a volatile chemical every year tells potential terrorists that blowing up the plant is going to release a witch’s brew of nastiness.”
HUD is also exploring with the Veterans Administration and Department of Transportation the possibility of overlaying their databases onto its Community 2020 software.
For more information
See the HUD E-MAPS site at http://www.hud.gov/emaps/.
A two-part Reason Public Policy Institute series, “Environmental Information: The Toxics Release Inventory, Stakeholder Participation, and the Right to Know,” addresses the danger of putting chemical data on the Internet. Both parts of the series are available at the group’s Web site at http://www.rppi.org. See Policy Study #246, “Shortcomings of the Current Right-to-Know Structure,” and Policy Study #247, “Nonregulatory Options for Environmental Information and Management.”