Risk Science & Google Earth Meet Locally & at High Speed


Last week I attended a presentation by Andrew Maynard about trends & challenges in risk science. The short short version of (my understanding of) the main issues in his talk would be roughly:

(a) Evolving Risks:
Technology has historically pushed new innovations through without solidly addressing their potential risks to human health & welfare. With the current escalating speed of development, this is vastly more true and concerning than ever before, with potential for new risks to pile one on the other, compounding problems and interacting in intricate complex ways that have the potential for GREAT harm, insoluble harm.

(b) Risk Identification:
Because of that speed of development, it is almost impossible to identify emerging health risks until the technology or cultural shift that created them has evolved, been adopted, crested, and declined. This makes the function of traditional risk science more of a belated mopping up the mess than a proactive prevention of harm. There is a concomitant need to develop new approaches to risk science that move as fast as the evolving technologies and which can address the complex intertwining problems evolving right alongside of those problems which already have been identified and for which solutions are being sought or are in progress.

(c) Risk Communication & Management:
Existing risks & emerging risks, existing solutions & emerging solutions ALL share common aspects of the problem space related to information and community. Risk identification and solution implementation are challenges that cannot be addressed at all, much less at speed, without community dialog, engagement, support from all stakeholders.

Oddly enough, the day of Andrew’s talk, I had just begun reading GK Chesterton’s 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, A Nightmare. This particular excerpt early in the book seemed particularly relevant.

“I found that there was a special opening in the service for those whose concerns for humanity were concerned rather with the aberrations of the scientific intellect than with the normal and excusable, though excessive, outbreaks of the human will” GK Chesterton. The Man Who Was Thursday, p. 42.

Now let’s shift ahead in time, only a few days.

Today was the monthly Cool Toys Conversations meeting, with a topic for conversation of maps and mapping in education. I will blog soon with the mindmap from the discussion and a list of the examples & resources discussed. One of the attendees was Roger Rayle, a local Google Earth guru who teaches classes on this at Washtenaw Community College. Roger is far more of an expert with Google Earth and maps/mapping technologies than I am, so I was happy to have him there and for him to occasionally correct minor errors in my understanding. I was even more delighted when at the end of the session he showed us a few examples of some of what he’s been doing with this. Here is an older piece of Roger’s that gives an article of his from 2008.

Rayle, Roger. Google Earth Applications in a Community Information System:
Scio Residents for Safe Water
. Solstice, Summer 2008.
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~copyrght/image/solstice/sum08/Rayle/Rayle.html

Roger Rayle: Google Earth: Dioxane Levels in ppb

Roger Rayle: Google Earth: Dioxane Levels in ppb

The map shown highlights an area in West Ann Arbor, in the area of Jackson Road, West Stadium Boulevard, where Stadium and I-94 intersect. The map shows dioxane measurements over much of this area of a thousand to 3 thousand parts per billion, while current EPA guidelines recommend 0.35 micrograms per liter (ie. parts per billion, ie. ppb).

Key lines for special attention:
“Water quality issues often are not uppermost in the minds of homeowners or decision-makers. The water is there and we tend to take for granted that it is clean, safe, and plentiful.”
and
“Roger Rayle really likes Google Earth. Before Google Earth came along, he spent tens of hours every few months creating two-dimensional depictions of new well sampling data for a local groundwater cleanup which he has been monitoring as a citizen volunteer for over fourteen years. Now with the basic version of Google Earth, in a couple of hours, he can generate a quarterly updated, four-dimensional plot showing the location of over 16,000 pollution samples taken since 1986. A bar whose height represents the concentration of the contaminant is shown at the exact X-Y longitude/latitude for each sample location with the fourth dimension being date sampled. The result viewed on Google Earth gives a clear indication of which ways the contamination plumes are moving, how fast, and at what concentrations.”

Roger had popped open the Google Earth application on his computer, and showed us layers and layers and layers of scientific datasets, statistics, and much more that he pulled together into a jaw-dropping, easy-to-understand, 4-dimensional visualization of the dangers to the water supply in OUR TOWN. You know, like, um, where we live? Like, under our feet and homes? Extremely high levels of dioxane in the aquifer that is under our feet. Then he mentioned that the extent of the cleanup of this horrible chemical mess is being presented and possibly determined in local courts. TOMORROW. How long have folks known about this? Well, they’ve known about the problem for years, but that this was going to court was only announced LAST WEEK. Who knew? Not me. Not anyone I’ve talked with this afternoon. Just Roger and a few of his friends, and the good folks in SRSW.

Let’s go back for a second and take a look at this as a risk science case study. Is this new or emerging risk? Not really, it’s been around for a long time. But it is new and emerging in that the court case only had a week’s warning that it was happening. What is the potential impact? Current projections show that the dioxane plume is expected to reach the Huron River within 12 years. It is moving towards the river at a speed of approximately 1.7 ft per day, almost 2 feet each DAY. How long will it take to do a cleanup? Well, I don’t know, but the problem was identified and waiting for a solution for over 20 years, and I feel pretty darn concerned that if it continues to be put off or minimized, it just might be too late. Meanwhile, the plume is stopping and waiting while we make up our minds. Even though this is a well-known and long established problem, I see issues of “emergence” (as in this stunningly short timeline for action), “identification” (as in what action is needed and who should be doing what), and “communication” (duh).

Roger was showing off Google Earth, and the word around the room was, “WOW.” Me, my jaw was the one hitting the floor, partly because of the facility and ease with which he managed all the layers of data, and partly because of what we were seeing. My brain was buzzing. After work, we took my son to his bowling team practice on the west side of town. That was when I finally had a chance to dig around in some of Roger’s info, and noticed, “OH! This dioxane problem is WHERE I AM STANDING. Oh!” I wondered who else didn’t know about it, so I popped on Twitter and Facebook (communication), and started sharing info I found.

Even though this is really more of a post about the curious connections between these two very different events in my life, it wouldn’t be fair to the readers of this blog if I didn’t share some of the other links. You’ll find them at the bottom of this post. In closing, another quote from the very provocative GK Chesterton book.

“Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself?” GK Chesterton. The Man Who Was Thursday, p. 205-206

PROMISED LINKS

Info about tomorrow’s court meeting:
CARD 1,4-Dioxane Wiki Home (Working to expand the knowledge base and create interaction in the affected Washtenaw County and Ann Arbor, Michigan, communities): http://dioxane.wetpaint.com/

Excerpt:
On November 15, in response to a scheduling order from the Washtenaw County Circuit Court (Court), a “Notice of Tentative Agreement on Proposed Modifications to Remedial Objectives for Gelman Site” (Tentative Agreement) was filed with the Court. A hearing is currently scheduled for 3PM on November 24; however, that date is subject to change (the Court’s calendar currently indicates the hearing will be at 1:30 PM; please check the web site to confirm the time: http://washtenawtrialcourt.org/calendar/DES).

Background from the State of Michigan:
Gelman Sciences, Inc. Site of Contamination Information Page: http://www.michigan.gov/deq/0,1607,7-135-3311_4109_9846-71595–,00.html

City of Ann Arbor: Environment: A Brief History of the Ann Arbor Groundwater Contamination Problem: http://www.a2gov.org/government/publicservices/systems_planning/Environment/pls/Pages/timeline.aspx

City of Ann Arbor: Environment: Frequently Asked Questions: http://www.a2gov.org/government/publicservices/systems_planning/Environment/pls/Pages/faq.aspx
‎”PLS has projected that the 85 ppb contour of the leading edge will reach the Huron River in 12 years.”

Wastenaw County Government: Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane (CARD) (1,4-Dioxane)
(Last year’s concerns about the court negotiations): http://www.ewashtenaw.org/government/departments/environmental_health/card

Most current & complete source of info
Scio Residents for Safe Water: http://srsw.org/
Best info is in the SRSW Google Group: http://groups.google.com/group/srsw/web/srswhome?pli=1
More of Roger’s awesome screenshots
You can download the relevant Google Earth file to play with yourself, if you like.

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