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Bar News - September 14, 2012

Environmental & Natural Resources: The Earth Is Not Flat: Meeting Expectations of a 3-D World


People in the environmental field once viewed their world in two dimensions. Scientists and engineers used "flatland" maps to show water tables and contaminant plumes, developing cross sections on paper to demonstrate the third dimension when needed. Environmental attorneys showed juries and judges large-size plots of data mounted on foam core and resting on a tripod to make their arguments. Permits were the stuff of pages of text, 2-D maps and tables.

That world is changing.

Fig. 1: Visualization graphic depicts a ridgeline with and without wind turbines.

Fig. 2 This image showed that contamination from a gas station had been affecting an adjacent building for as long as 25 to 30 years (well before the building was purchased), saving the insurance company for the gas station considerably on a settlement and legal fees.

Fig. 3 An image of a three-dimensional representation of several layers of site information presented as a series of on-screen interactive 3D visualizations.
Images courtesy of New England EnviroStrategies, Inc.
Hardware and software capability once accessible only to multinationals is now widely available. Where exploration geologists once used overlays on a basemap to view dataset interaction, the same evaluation is now accomplished with laptop-based geographic information system (GIS) software at a fraction of the time and cost. Remediation engineers who once painstakingly produced multiple flat cross-sections of a subsurface contaminant source now view the image rotating in three dimensions on a computer screen, sectioning along an infinite number of planes. Finally, a new generation has assumed key positions within the workforce – a generation that increasingly expects, not just desires – 3-D visualization.

Three-dimensional graphics and visualization can be applied in many venues, but let’s look at three outstanding examples in the interaction of environmental science and environmental law: permitting, litigation and remediation reviews.


While many permits still involve basic form-filling, a map or two and a fee to the regulatory agency, permits for complex ventures such as wind farms or the development of large industrial facilities require considerably greater effort to convince regulators, key stakeholders and the public at large of the value of a given project. For such endeavors, 3-D visualization can play a major role.

For example, a major source of controversy over wind farms is the impact on the view, whether along a Rocky Mountain ridgeline, situated on wheat fields of the Great Plains or offshore of Cape Cod. Visualizations can greatly aid in the decision-making process.

An example of this (see Figure 1 in the online version of this article) depicts a ridgeline with and without wind turbines. The process involves the use of a combination of digital terrain models, aerial imagery and GIS to simulate what turbines might look like from various directions and angles. The GIS platform simulates views from the perspective of a wide range of stakeholders: residents living in different locations, vehicular traffic in the area, even tourists hiking, biking or sailing. This visualization approach can apply to a wide variety of projects ranging from energy corridor development to the establishment of large structures within a community.


In court, an environmental attorney works with an expert witness to translate esoteric information into something a judge, mediator or jury can comprehend. Typical environmental site investigation, evaluation and remediation work generally looks at what contamination exists and where it is, with regard to risk to the environment. In litigation, however, the focus shifts to who put the contamination there and when the releases occurred, keying on the issue of responsibility and causality.

In litigation between the owner of a building and an adjacent gasoline station, the dispute centered not on whether contamination from the station had affected the building; the issue was the perceived value of the structure. The conflict was complicated by the fact that the owner had purchased the structure within the past six years, but had failed to perform appropriate due diligence with an environmental site assessment.

Figure 2 (see page 27) shows the work of a number of consultants over the past 20 years compiled into a single GIS platform to evaluate the data spatially and temporally. The 3-D model and evaluation showed that contamination from the gasoline station had affected the building as long as 25 to 30 years ago and was well-known at the time of the purchase. The insurance company for the gasoline station settled with the building owner for roughly one-fourth of the original demand, in addition to saving protracted litigation costs.

Remediation Reviews

The environmental business is a mature one – few sites do not have some measure of prior investigation. A review of a site with 3-D visualization can often prove an inexpensive means to discover cost efficiencies.

A New England electronics manufacturer had been told to consider the use of biological methods to attack the source of chlorinated hydrocarbons rather than continue with its containment remedy. The attorney for the manufacturer, an experienced environmental lawyer, was uncomfortable with that decision and asked New England EnviroStrategies to conduct a peer review. We created a geo-database and three-dimensional representations of all site data and presented an evaluation as a series of on-screen interactive 3D visualizations (See Figure 3 in the online version of this article) that allowed the owner of the manufacturing facility to "see" what lay beneath his factory, including its geology, hydrogeology, and, of critical importance, the historic contaminant distribution. The analysis showed that the size of the pollutant source was so large that implementing a biological remedy would have been prohibitively expensive, and that retaining the containment strategy was preferable.

Muriel S. Robinette, P.G., is president, and W. James Griswold, P.G., senior vice president, of New England EnviroStrategies, Inc., in Concord. Visit their website at

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