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A Whole New World

May 1, 2006

4 Min Read
A Whole New World

Bruce Clark

ASSUME A WASTE FIRM OR local government needs a new landfill or transfer station and commissions a siting study. The traditional way to conduct such a study would be to manually review hundreds of pages of parcel ownership at the tax assessor's office. This entails hours of taking copious notes and reviewing, one-by-one, maps and reports from locations of wetlands, airports, water supply wells, lakes, sinkholes and conservation areas.

After painstakingly drawing a new map or series of maps that display all of the important siting data and sensitive areas, an engineer manually measures the distances from all of the sensitive areas to any specific parcel area of the proposed facility.

A study of this nature requires six months and considerable expense. Moreover, the accuracy of the resulting survey is questionable, given the amount of data to digest. If an engineer needed to assess additional parcels, it could add another four months of work.

In contrast, if the local government in which the proposed facility would be built has computerized the basic reference information and a geographic information system (GIS) is used for that same assignment, the work, even encompassing multiple parcels, could be completed in two months or less. The resulting information would also be more accurate, more useful and more readable.

If someone wanted to know who owned certain parcels and how large they are, that information would be accessible through the system with a few clicks of the mouse. Want to see all power corridors, every permitted potable water well, every housing subdivision, floodplain and wetland? No problem — it's right in the GIS database.

The GIS operator decides which layers of information to present. The information is manipulated electronically, so there is no labor-intensive drafting required for different analyses.

GIS technology, originally developed for other uses, is being applied to environmental services and solid waste management. It is important for engineers and solid waste officials to understand the potential benefits GIS has for the industry.

GIS uses computers to integrate, analyze and model data from maps, surveys, photos, reports and other sources and produces graphical maps, reports and plans to aid the decision-making process. Think of it as a visualization tool.

How GIS Helps

Many municipal governments have invested in a GIS for planning, zoning and public property regulatory functions. The data in the system often include parcel ownership, permitted wells, parks, municipal boundaries and other useful information.

If a waste firm or local solid waste department has the luxury of access to a large planning department, the staff may be willing to manipulate some of this data for them. Typically though, a siting study encompasses a huge variety of information, some of which may have to be gathered from other sources and integrated with information from the city's basic GIS. Planning departments usually can't devote the resources needed in the time frame a client requires to acquire all of the necessary data.

In some cases, a waste firm or a solid waste department will bring in an engineering firm to conduct the siting study. The firm then interacts with all of the necessary municipal departments, acquiring data from outside sources (e.g., state agencies) as needed.

This team arrangement allows a firm or solid waste department to focus on evaluation of the costs and environmental impacts of alternative solutions, rather than number crunching.

The following examples in municipal solid waste management illustrate the ability of a GIS to help managers efficiently solve complex operational issues.

The County of Orange Integrated Waste Management Department (IWMD) in Santa Ana, Calif., needed to identify addresses to which it provided service under franchise hauling agreements that were outside of the county's unincorporated area. The purpose of the study was to determine if any waste collected by franchised haulers and attributed to the unincorporated county area did not originate in the county, and therefore should not be included in the Disposal Reporting System data.

To determine whether the haulers were collecting waste in incorporated areas, engineers mapped the customer addresses supplied by the franchised haulers utilizing a GIS database. Using the customer lists provided by the haulers and GIS boundary data from the county, engineers geocoded the addresses to create a master map indicating the location of all addresses served by the franchised haulers. The data set was then filtered to identify addresses outside of the unincorporated county area.

Engineers also turned to GIS when the County of Orange IWMD needed to identify opportunities for increasing self-haul recycling and diversion from its three active landfills. In order to identify optimal pricing and expected diversion, it was necessary to gather baseline information about the origin and quantities of self-haul materials that were disposed at the three active landfills as well as the distance, time and costs associated with transporting the materials from their origins to one of the three landfills and other diversion facilities.

Engineers used a GIS database to locate the centroids of each city, and geocoded the addresses of each landfill and diversion facility to determine the distance from each centroid to the solid waste facility. This information was used to estimate the average transport distances and time, depending on the geographic area in which the waste originated.

Bruce Clark
Project Director, SCS Engineers
Tampa, Fla.

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