Civil Air Patrol, Bay State plan air searches for hard-to-trace pollution sources

Civil Air Patrol volunteers may soon take to the Massachusetts skies here to scout for hazardous waste pollution. Under an agreement with the state, CAP pilots will monitor the state's lakes, landfills, and coastline to gather evidence of environmental pollution such as sewage overflows, midnight dumping of toxic waste, and liquid seeping from landfills into wetlands.

The state budget includes $78,000 for the aerial surveillance, which is the first formal program involving the CAP, the civilian auxiliary of the US Air Force, with state environmental protection efforts.

Details of the experimental program - such as specific flight schedules - have yet to be worked out. But CAP Col. David Gardner says his pilots will use a special camera system that is attached to the underside of the patrolling airplane to gather evidence for the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE).

The camera system is owned by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the regional EPA office is considering Colonel Gardner's request for its use.

Gardner says the pollution patrol agreement is a natural extension of the CAP's role. The organization regularly participates in search-and-rescue missions, he says, and is systematic in its survey work. ''You can see from the air 100 times what you can see from the ground,'' he says. ''The perspective is what we're offering.''

The Massachusetts CAP also has one airplane equipped with pontoons, he says, which will be used to collect water samples from lakes in remote locations.

Gardner stresses that ''we are not a policing organization. We will not go out to try to catch someone in the act'' of an illegal activity. Rather, the CAP will ''serve as a data collection agency.'' It will respond to requests from DEQE for surveillance and will pass the data directly to that agency.

Thomas McLaughlin, acting commissioner of the DEQE, says the partnership will add ''to our tool bag to fight hazardous waste.''

Mr. McLaughlin says his office reqularly receives tips from the public about possible violations of environmental regulations. Yet, he says, the agency often does not have adequate personnel or resources to investigate.

The aerial photography ''is not going to supplant on-the-ground investigation ,'' he says. It will help focus the investigation.

For instance, he says, the DEQE recently photographed 43 of the state's 400 landfills in a period of less than six hours from a helicopter. The film pointed investigators to landfills that needed immediate on-site inspection, he says.

State Rep. Roger R. Goyette (D) of New Bedford, who sponsored the proposal in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, says, ''The handling of hazardous waste is a most serious problem. (Some) landfills, rivers, estuaries, and harbors need immediate remedial action.''

Mr. Goyette says the program should serve as a warning to those handling waste improperly. ''We'll have the eyes of the sky on you.'' He says he hopes this will spur compliance with the law.

An avid boater, Goyette says the idea of using the CAP to monitor pollution was inspired by his experience as a volunteer in the Coast Guard auxiliary.

Key to the success of the partnership is the use of the Enviro-Pod camera system, designed by the EPA. Vernard H. Webb, director of the agency's Environmental Photographic Interpretation Center in Warrenton, Va., says the system has been in use for about five years.

The Enviro-Pod incorporates ''two high-resolution reconnaissance-type cameras ,'' which are designed to be strapped to the underside of an airplane. With them , Mr. Webb says, ''you can see just about anything.''

At an altitude of 10,000 feet, one frame will record an area roughly three miles by 70 miles. The camera can make about 600 black and white exposures, he says, or 350 color shots before reloading.

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