Bill supports homeland security through geospatial information and faulty maps to blame for Quecreek flood.

Bill Supports Homeland Security Through Geospatial Information

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, served as a wake-up call for citizens and government agencies. In a speech following those attacks, President Bush said, “The first minutes and hours… that’s the most hopeful time to save lives… that’s why we want to spend money to make sure equipment is there, strategies are there, communications are there… to make sure that [we are] prepared to respond.” The government has made efforts toward this goal, probably the most significant of those being the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to which geospatial data is critical. Without accurate and precise location data, responding to, and more importantly preventing, threats to our home turf would be very difficult—if not impossible. A recently introduced bill to Congress will give priority to geospatial information and increase the duties of the chief information officer of the Department of Homeland Security if it is passed.

Senate Bill 1230, introduced by Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO) defines geospatial information as “the collecting, storing, retrieving, or disseminating graphical or digital data depicting natural or man-made physical features, phenomena or boundaries of the earth and any information related thereto, including surveys, maps, charts, remote sensing data and images, and aerial photographic services, with services performed by professionals such as surveyors, photogrammetrists, hydrographers, geodesists, cartographers, and other such services of an architectural or engineering nature.”

This new bill would give the chief information officer of the DHS additional responsibilities to establish and carry out a program to provide for the efficient use of geospatial information. The purpose of the program is two-fold. First, it will include such geospatial information as may be necessary to implement the critical infrastructure protection programs. Second, the program will organize the available geospatial information in a manner that can be effectively used by those responsible for planning, prevention, assessment and responding to emergencies and will also prevent unnecessary duplication of the geospatial information among users. In addition to the chief information officer’s current duties, the bill outlines four main responsibilities: managing geospatial information needs and activities; establishing standards to assure the interoperability of geospatial information pertaining to homeland security among all users of such information within the public and private sectors; providing grants to fund the creation of data and to execute information sharing agreements with state, local and tribal governments; and to the maximum extent possible, ensuring that the DHS utilizes commercial geospatial data and services available by awarding contracts to entities in the private sector.

Industry organizations ACSM and MAPPS are firmly behind this bill. ACSM strongly favors the section of the bill that will ensure the DHS awards contracts to entities in the private sector as it allows private companies to play a role in the compilation of the large amount of geospatial information required by the DHS. ACSM also strongly supports the section of the bill that seeks to prevent duplication of information or information in different scales as this deters the responsiveness of the people who rely on its accuracy the most and wastes valuable time when used in an emergency.

ACSM Executive Director Curt Sumner, LS, and ACSM Government Affairs Consultant Laurence Socci met in June with personnel from the DHS to determine the role of a geospatial information officer in the department. Ryan Cast currently holds this position and is assisted by John Crowe, senior geospatial advisor. At the meeting, Crowe explained that the chief information officer’s geospatial initiative has four components: strategic and planning; data and information services; technical; and liaison to geospatial activity in the federal agencies. He also noted that the geospatial information officer will be looking to the National Map as well as to states and localities to provide data and layers. The person in this role will also work with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) regarding the management and acquisition of geospatial data. The OMB’s goal is to place any geospatial projects, including those from the DHS, in one Joint Capital Plan, which will contain the geospatial projects from all agencies. Crowe also stated that the DHS needs to have geospatial products right now and is expecting to spend $5 billion for the products, which is why private sector involvement is so critical.

MAPPS Executive Director John Palatiello said that this is “an extraordinary opportunity to enhance the homeland security of the United States and at the same time advance the development and application of geospatial data.” Palatiello urged all firms, agencies, associations, professional societies and individuals in the geospatial community to take actions in support of this bill.

Although the Department may already be performing some of the activities that are called for in this piece of legislation, S.1230 would establish them with a legislative basis. “There is not yet an infrastructure in [the] Department of Homeland Security to manage a geospatial program. Of all the agencies that were brought in, the only one that had a significant geospatial legacy was FEMA, and its is related almost solely to flood mapping. The importance of having these responsibilities written into law involves recognition, political clout and funding. It is always helpful and important that a program has the support of Congress. Enacting S.1230 will do that,” Palatiello said.

Palatiello foresees that because “geospatial [information] is such a small and relatively unknown part of the homeland security equation, it will take a lot of work to get the bill passed. However, the lack of focus on the geospatial solution is the reason the bill is necessary.”

Most recently, the bill has been referred to the Committee on Governmental Affairs.

The Consol II Map of the Quecreek mine was one of the maps involved in the investigation.

Faulty Maps to Blame for Quecreek Flood

In July of 2002, a disaster in Quecreek, Pennsylvania unfolded on news networks across the nation. Nine miners were trapped underground due to their breach of an adjacent mine that had been flooded, releasing millions of gallons of water, trapping them inside the confines of the mine for three days. The safety and health of the miners was of major concern, but now, more than a year later, concentration is on whether the tragedy could have been prevented.

Federal investigators from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration immediately began conducting an investigation into the incident. On Aug. 13, 2003, this agency concluded that the inundation occurred because no available map detailed the full extent of previous mining done in the flooded, long-abandoned mine adjacent to the Quecreek operation. The maps that were available led miners to believe the flooded mine was hundreds of feet away when they breached it.

The federal report suggested that since no certified map of that adjacent mine—which hadn’t been mined since the early 1960s—was available, the operators, owners and engineers for the Quecreek Mine could have taken other steps, like drilling test holes, to determine how close the old mine was to the new one when it was opening in the late 1990s.

Operators also could have consulted production records from the older mine and concluded the maps on hand were incomplete, said Dave Lauriski, assistant U.S. secretary of labor for Mine Safety and Health.

Because inaccurate maps were used, citations have been issued against Black Wolf Coal Co., the contractor employing the miners; PBS Coals Inc., owner of the Quecreek Mine; and Musser Engineering Inc., which helped prepare the mine maps in support of the company’s state permit. Penalties for the violations have not yet been determined.

Six of the miners have also filed lawsuits against past and present owners and operators of the mines, saying they knew or should have known about the danger. Black Wolf is not named in the lawsuits because of workers’ compensation rules. Only two miners have returned to work—just one back underground.

The miners’ lawyer, Howard Messer, said the federal report supports his claim that more should have been done to protect the men. “If you can’t find a good [map], you have to validate the information by some other process,” he said.

Randy Musser, president of Musser Engineering, said the law requires a citation to be issued if any map is found to be inaccurate, but that the mapping of Quecreek was “done in accordance with the standards applicable at that time.”

PBS Coals, in a statement, said it believed the report cleared it and Musser from any intentional wrongdoing and showed they had “searched all expected sources” in trying to determine the boundaries of the abandoned mine.

In its report last month, the state Department of Environmental Protection blamed the inundation on faulty maps, but concluded—as did the federal agency—that there was no evidence that mine operators should have known the breach was imminent.