CLEANUP: A CONTINUOUS PROCESS
The standard cleanup process, as theoretically defined in both state
and federal laws and regulations, has proven useful over the past two
decades, but there is room for improvement. I recognize that many
people are reluctant to rethink any part of that process, because there
have been so many attempts to undermine it, but I believe it is
possible to simplify the process for responsible parties while at the
same time enhancing the public's role in assuring protection of health
and the environment.
THE SITUATION: A LINEAR MODEL THAT DOESN'T MATCH REALITY
The current model starts with preliminary assessment/site inspection
(PA/SI) and moves through Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study
(RI/FS). Remedy selection is embodied in a Record of Decision (ROD),
which is followed by the Remedial Design (RD) and Remedial Action (RA).
However, rarely is a project so linear.
Removal actions, which really should be called "responses," often make
sense, but increasingly the bulk of cleanup at many sites consists of a
series of such interim actions. While removals require some level of
public involvement, they do not provide the full opportunities for
public participation associated with the preparation of the ROD. It's
thus possible to complete most of the work as a site without full
Permanent treatment is preferred in long-term remedies because removal
actions designed to eliminate pathways may be effective in the short
run, but they do not necessarily provide long-term protection.
Operation and maintenance or monitoring becomes costly in the long
haul, and as long as contamination remains, there is chance of an
unexpected release. (Note that natural bidegradation, where it can be
proven to occur, is a long-term remedy, not a removal action.) Some of
us also support permanence because we believe that there is also an
intrinsic value in preserving an unpolluted environment, even though we
reluctantly recognize the practical limitations on achieving pristine
In addition, the ROD-based model misses the fact that studies continue
- that is, the understanding of the nature and extent of contamination
changes - throughout remedial action and design. In fact, actual
remediation, sometimes conducted as removal actions, is frequently the
best way to characterize contamination and soil/water conditions.
Communication, not only between responsible parties and regulators, but
particularly with the public, is undermined by the large volume of
paperwork generated in the process. (While this is primarily a process
question, the proposal below addresses this problem as well.)
THE PROPOSAL: A LIVING SITE MANAGEMENT PLAN
Once PA/SI is conducted, cleanups should be governed by "living" site
management plans that describe studies underway, removal and remedial
actions as they are proposed, and long-term cleanup goals. These plans
should be updated periodically or when there are major changes. The
public should have the opportunity to comment as update occurs. The
plans should contain schedules for real world activities and for the
preparation and review of more detailed technical documents. Background
information on the site should be included in the plan.
Technical data, including all past findings, should be maintained in an
electronic repository, accessible by regulators and, following quality
assurance/quality control, the public.
Detailed technical documents should be considered appendices to the
Site Management Plan. They should not repeat the background information
or other boilerplate already included in the plan. Data already in the
electronic repository should be included in these documents only when
necessary to help make cleanup decisions.
The key element of this approach is that there is no single point in
the process at which a remedy is selected. It recognizes that remedies
are continuously being revised.
Removal actions need not be seen as alternatives to long-term remedies,
but as steps toward them. The public is likely to be more receptive to
short-term responses when they seem likely to lead to permanent,
effective, long-term responses.
This approach also recognizes that study and remediation are often
Public involvement is enhanced by continuous and/or iterative participation.
While exact standards and remedies cannot be determined when the plan
is first constructed, a vision - perhaps including an end date and end
state - can be offered, with the recognition that it may be changed as
the project moves forward.
The Plan can, when appropriate, encourage the use of innovative
technologies by establishing performance goals instead of listing
specific technologies. Performance goals not only include cleanup
levels but other measurable objectives, dealing with a wide variety of
factors ranging from limitations on emissions to noise restrictions to
deadlines to local employment requirements.
In our discussion with a state toxicologist, I learned that there is no
single industrial scenario. Risk assessors view lumber yards
differently from electronics plants, and both are different than airports.
Thinking back over my admittedly limited knowledge of the technical
details of risk assessment, I recalled that there are at least three
key factors that distinguish land use scenarios:
1) Receptors. We base risk analysis for residential scenarios on the
presence of the most vulernable members of the population: children,
the aging, and the sick, but we assume that they are rarely present at
2) Length of potential exposure. People typically spend less time on
the job than some people spend at home.
3) Pathways. Kids and soccer goalies eat dirt.
In most cases, I would think that the variation in pathways is likely
to make the greatest difference in actual exposure. There may be some
chemicals - such as lead or nitrates in water - that cause orders of
magnitude different health affects for different age groups, but
generally the variation is not that great. No one is exposed more than
168/hours per week.
I suggest, therefore, that any look-up tables that define default
cleanup levels by land use scenario be DIRECTLY related to the presence
of pathways. For example, we could develop levels for the following
A. unrestricted. All pathways are considered open.
B. receptors may have direct contact with contaminated soil.
C. receptors may only ingest contamination from the soil.
D. receptors may only inhale contamination from the soil.
E. no possible contact with soil contamination.
By directly relating exposure to pathways, we reduce the number of
assumptions that the risk assessor must make. More important, to earn
use of levels B through E (that is, other than unrestricted use) a
landowner/responsible party would have to guarantee closure of pathways
for the life of the contamination.
By shifting from zoning categories (residential, industrial,etc.) we
not only match potential exposures more directly to the land use, but
we move away from the myth that somehow zoning restrictions are
sufficient institutional controls.
I still remain skeptical that land use-based cleanup is correct policy.
But that's the way it's done, so I want to see that it's done right.