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WHAT LIES BENEATH? Start Here To Learn What's Buried Near You (part 1)

Have you ever wondered what’s buried in the ground near your house? What toxins are polluting the air in your neighborhood? What’s flowing through the water in the creek outside? Maybe you’ve questioned whether a toxic landfill is artfully hidden in the open, grassy area near your workplace. Wonder no more. New and old online sources of information hold some of the answers you need. It just proves that sometimes technology really can be … healthy.

I’ve written before about ways to start organizing environmental information (using a map, narrowing in on addresses, talking with your neighbors), but the next two posts will help you gather the information in the first place. Consider it the “big picture” you need to get started.

Start with a simple Internet search. Google will do. You’re looking for newspaper articles, scientific studies (by private companies and public agencies), or documents that connect where you live with environmental buzzwords like:




Remedial investigation, design, or action



Environmental assessment





Area of concern (AOC)

National Priorities List (NPL) (A list of the most serious sites identified for possible long-term cleanup)

“Record of decision” (this agency document explains which cleanup alternatives will be used at a NPL site)

Cancer cluster

Radioactive isotope



Heavy Metals

Semi-volatile Organic Compounds (SVOCs)

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Industrial Solvents


Hazardous waste

Industrial or landfill emissions

For example, if I lived in Lewiston, New York, I might enter “Lewiston” and “radioactivity” to see whether anything comes up. I got 196,000 results. Out of the first five:

Two are articles from a regional newsweekly discussing radiological contamination in Lewiston;

One is a government cancer study on residents in Lewiston (which reveals a number of interesting conclusions like this one on page 7: “Childhood Cancers: A total of 15 cases of cancer were diagnosed among children residing in study area #1. This number was statistically significantly greater than the eight cases of cancer expected.”);

One is a New York Times article from 1984 entitled “TOWN IS WORRIED AS U.S. SHIFTS ATOM WASTE OF 40'S”;

One is a blog by a person who writes about nuclear issues.

That’s a good mix of sources, some perhaps more reliable than others. It’s also a pretty good way to get a sense of the known or suspected problems in that town.

As you begin reading the results of your own search, you’ll start to identify the names of places or dumps that could potentially pose a threat. In the Lewiston example, you’ll repeatedly see terms like “Niagara Falls Storage Site” or “NFSS” (which sounds somewhat benign, no?) or “Lake Ontario Ordinance Works” (“LOOW”). Now you can run down more detailed information using these specific terms.

Where there’s a known threat or problem, there will usually be several government documents containing specific information relating to assessment, testing, and remediation. Don’t be daunted by these scientific documents. Sure, they’re long and full of acronyms that might be hard to decipher. You’ll see things like EPA, RA, and RPM. But there’s always a glossary online (see, for example, this one: ), or every term should be defined somewhere in that paper. And, anyway, you’re still getting your arms around the big picture at this point. Press on.

You’ll notice that the assessment and remediation of known toxic sites is done in stages. Some are in the process of being tested. Some are getting cleaned up. Others are closed (like landfills that have reached capacity), but are still being monitored in some way (because all landfills eventually leak). There will be studies and documents for each stage. Each will usually recap what’s happened before, and will often mention other known environmental problems in the same area. There’s a wealth of information in these papers.

Next week, I’ll outline some of the more specific websites that target potential environmental threats. Here’s one to get you started: Scorecard – “the pollution information website” can be found at:

This site allows you to generate a pollution report card for your neighborhood, school, or any zip code you enter. For example, I entered a specific zip code and it generates a report for air:

Smog and Soot: How Much Air Pollution is Released in Your Community? In 1999, this county ranked among the dirtiest/worst 10% of all counties in the U.S. in terms of volatile organic compound emissions.

  • See how your county stacks up against all others in the U.S.

  • How many days a year is your air healthy?

  • Get a list of the top polluters contributing to smog and soot in your county.

Air Pollutants That Pose Cancer and Other Health Risks Based on EPA's most current data, this county ranked among the dirtier 30% of all counties in the US in terms of noncancer hazards from hazardous air pollutants.

  • See how your county stacks up against all others in the U.S.

  • Find out about the main sources of hazardous air pollution, from diesel buses and trucks to dry cleaners and gas stations.

  • Learn more about hazardous air pollutants in your community.

It has another feature that allows the viewer to look at facts relating to “environmental justice.” For example, it examines whether the poor bear a disproportionate burden of toxics in an area.

Most people don’t realize that there are environmental studies available online that relate to their town, the local waterway, or sometimes the street on which they live. It’s important that you are aware of this information. It’s how we’re intentional about living. It’s how we watch out for our children and parents. It’s part of how we’re good stewards over this Earth.

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