Thursday, November 14, 2013

Historical Research Tools for Environmental Professionals

A former industrial complex is currently undergoing remedial action due to the potential threat to a nearby aquifer. Efforts until now have focused on characterizing the magnitude and nature of the contamination. As an environmental forensics expert, you've been asked to identify and evaluate the potentially responsible parties and the extent of their respective contribution.

However, the documents provided during discovery don’t yield a comprehensive picture.  Many of the facilities no longer exist, and records of their existence, as well as the chemicals they handled are sparse at best. Where do you look for answers?

Turn to Additional Resources

John Simon, editor of Remediation, published an informative article in the Winter 2013 edition of Remediation on this topic. He identified some valuable resources we typically use in our investigations, including Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, electronic repositories of historic books and scientific journals (e.g. Google Books, and Environmental Science and Technology archives), aerial photographs, and the USEPA’s Envirofacts database.  Here we present several additional resources that we utilize for both litigation support and academic publications.

Historical Newspapers
Historical newspapers, particularly local ones, can provide descriptions and timing of general activities at a facility of interest. For example, they might include information describing when a company started or expanded a production line, when they planned to hire, or incidents that occurred like spills, leaks, or explosions. One caveat: newspapers can be hit or miss as to online availability and search capability. While Penn Libraries has a list of historical newspapers that can be found online,  if you can’t find what you need, local historical societies and local libraries (see below) can usually help  and may even be able to provide further information that can be corroborated with other sources.

     Local Historical Societies and Libraries
We cannot emphasize this one enough. We have interacted with a number of local historical societies and libraries (both public and private) and have learned that their staff can be extremely helpful, especially if you are just beginning your research. Not only can they help you better target your research efforts (“Have you considered X, Y, Z?”), they can also provide unique perspectives and resources. As Simon noted, a local historical society provided him with an electronic copy of a 19th century map, which helped support his opinions. As a final note, don’t forget that state and local governments also have archives that may be searchable but not completely available online; you can often make a request with their archivist to make copies for a small fee.

Electronic Repositories
Adding to Simon’s suggestions, here are a few others:
  • National Service Center for Environmental Publications (NSCEP) – The USEPA’s repository for past and present digital documents. Most are text-recognized and searchable based on time period. As it does today, in the 1970s and 1980s, the USEPA gathered and assessed an enormous amount of information from soon-to-be regulated industries in order to develop and promulgate rules. This early work created a great archive about the operations, practices, and conditions of a variety of industries in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • HathiTrust – An ever-expanding digital library supported by major research institutions like MIT, Penn State, and University of Michigan. Currently the collection has nearly 11 million volumes, one third of which are in the public domain. This is a useful research tool that offers digitalized works that Google often does not offer: For example, the Handbook of Aldrin, Dieldrin and Endrin Formulations (Shell Chemical, 1959) is available in full thanks to Cornell University on Hathi but not on Google.  
  • DTIC Online – A searchable repository provided by the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) for research and engineering information for the Department of Defense. While not completely accessible to the general public, there is still a wealth of historic technical documents and reports available. Also available is the Multisearch option which has an extremely user-friendly interface and reminds us somewhat of the scientific search engine Scirus (a search engine similar to Google Scholar, but unfortunately no longer available as of January, 2014).

Additionally, if you have access to a university library consider going through their research guides or speaking with a librarian. There are often unconventional or unique sources you might not otherwise consider that may prove invaluable in the long run.

Supplementary Resource

Finally, if you would like more background information on using different research tools or concrete examples consider reading Chapter 2 of Introduction to Environmental Forensics, “Site History: The First Tool of the Environmental Forensics Team.”  For environmental professionals just beginning historic research, this chapter provides a comprehensive approach from start to finish. It discusses useful general resources in addition to those targeted to specific types of cases. It also includes case studies illuminating different angles of analysis. Check out an excerpt here.


Environmental forensics is not just conducted on the ground doing fieldwork, in a lab conducting experiments, or even sitting at a desk poring over discovery documents. It requires getting a little dusty delving into the metaphorical attics and basements of scientific knowledge and activity. Whether you are in the archives of trade journals, newspapers, or government publications, you will find that historic research may be as essential to your investigations as any other component.  Knowing where to look and what resources to draw upon will allow you to find information helpful in formulating your opinions. 

Are there any other sources you use or would suggest?

Submitted by Kate McMahon, Research Associate

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