Take Two CDs and Call Me in the Morning

Some might argue that computers get a bum rap in Stanley Kubrik's sci-fi classic movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey." Just because Hal, a rogue HAL 9000 computer, shows a little attitude and snuffs all but one of the astronauts on the mission to Jupiter doesn't mean that all computers are bad.

Our "2001: A Software Odyssey" issue aims to show the kinder, gentler side of computers and how they have contributed to the advancement of the environmental field. Computer hardware and software have now become indispensable tools in curing the ills of our increasingly polluted planet. They are being used to clean up air, water, soil and to preserve our natural resources.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken the lead in developing a wide range of software applications. For example, in 2000 EPA introduced a computer model to help municipal waste facilities choose cost-effective, environmentally friendly ways to manage their waste. Because waste managers need to make decisions such as whether they want to set up a recycling program for aluminum, the model is designed to provide information on emissions, energy use and other aspects of individual components of the waste stream. More information on the model can be found at www.rti.org/units/ese/p2/mswslide1.cfm.

To help in the area of risk assessment, EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment has developed the Benchmark Dose Software (BMDS Version 1.2) to assist the use of benchmark dose methods for assessing hazardous pollutants. Benchmark dose refers to the dose of a toxicant associated with a predetermined response. Analysts used these measurements in cancer and noncancer risk assessments. The software and related documents can be downloaded at no charge from www.epa.gov/ncea/bmds/htm. EPA has also taken an active role in developing dispersion models for assessing ambient air pollution. EPA's Support Center for Regulatory Air Models maintains a Web site at www.epa.gov/scram001/index.htm,, a source of information on air quality models that support regulatory programs mandated under the Clean Air Act.

Software is also starting to be used to tackle the technical challenges associated with controlling sources of water pollution that are impairing U.S. rivers and other water bodies. Computer modeling is helping to identify impaired waters and determine a course of action, which can be complex due to the often diverse mix of pollutants. EPA's Office of High Performance Computing and Communications (www.epa.gov/HPCC/watqual.html) is successfully using powerful computers to calculate the fate and transport of sediments and contaminants in surface waters.

The goal of EPA Office of Environmental Information (OEI) (www.epa.gov/oei) is to integrate quality environmental information to make it useful in making informed decisions, improving management, documenting performance and measuring success. One of OEI's top priorities is to integrate data systems during fiscal year 2001 by combining all types of air, waste and water information into a single core of environmental data and tools. Congress has allocated $5 million in funding to the initiative to help EPA, industry, and state make data more useful through integration and quality assurance. The project is called the Information Exchange Network and is part of EPA's larger effort to make information a "strategic resource" that leads to enhanced environmental protection. The rationale is that better information about environmental problems can spur community interest and involvement in environmental protection.

Regulated industries are downloading EPA compliance assistance documents from the agency's Internet site in record numbers - 31,000 documents in June 2000 alone. EPA's audit protocols describe requirements for various industries to participate in an EPA program that allows companies to discover and disclose environmental violations through self-audits and receive reduced or eliminated penalties. One popular protocol is the Hazardous Organic NESHAP (HON) Inspection Tools, used to assist compliance with Clean Air Act requirements. Audit protocols and other compliance assistance documents can be downloaded from the Web site of EPA's Compliance Assistance and Sector Program Division at www.epa.gov/oeca/ccsmd.

Another tool EPA offers is the National Environmental Supercomputing Center (NESC) (www.epa.gov/nescweb0/00_general/intro.html), which is a contractor-operated facility designed to support EPA's supercomputing programs. In 1994, NESC acquired a Cray C94 supercomputer. Then in 1999, the center made a huge advance in its parallel computing capability by acquiring a Cray T3E-1200 parallel processing supercomputer. NESC provides high performance computing resources necessary to support environmental research of global proportions, improved science for the development of regulations and education programs for the environmental and computational sciences.

In addition, EPA operates the Scientific Visualization Center (www.epa.gov/vislab/svc/overview/index.html), which is an important tool for environmental research. Visualization is a method of computing that transforms the symbolic into the geometric, enabling researchers to observe their simulations and computations and to allow them to effectively convey those results to others. Visualization unifies the fields of computer graphics, image processing, computer vision, computer-aided design, signal processing and user interface studies.

EPA's efforts to harness the power of computers and software to protect the environment are commendable. Clearly, the digital revolution is helping to restore the health of ecosystems adversely impacted by growing global industrialization and its accompanying pollution.

This article originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 4, p. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.