By Katherine Garufi, M.SAME
In the 1970s, driven by public health emergencies such as Love Canal, a landfill in Niagara Falls, N.Y., that became the site of a massive environmental pollution disaster, the nation became increasingly aware of the human health and environmental risks posed by unregulated hazardous waste dumping in communities. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act was established in 1980, providing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the ability to clean up these sites through the Superfund Program.
Since 1980, EPA’s Superfund Program has helped protect human health and the environment by managing the cleanup of the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites and responding to local and nationally significant environmental emergencies. Recently, EPA celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Superfund Program. This celebration gave the agency—and the nation—a moment to reflect and appreciate the tremendous progress the program has made in addressing the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites, but also revitalizing communities by returning sites to productive reuse.
When we discuss program success, however, what we hear less about is how the enactment of Superfund was a major catalyst in the development of this nation’s hazardous waste remediation industry. At the advent of Superfund, the hazardous waste remediation industry and knowledge base was limited to a handful of firms and academic institutions whose expertise was focused in the areas of wastewater treatment and hazardous waste disposal. Superfund sites provided a whole new opportunity for this industry. The sites identified as Superfund priorities were abandoned, uncontrolled, and in some instances, unstable.
The Superfund Program was faced with the challenge of using limited existing environmental investigation and remediation tools and techniques to safely and efficiently address these sites.
REMEDIATION IN THE PAST
To appreciate just how far we have come as an industry, it is important to look at where we were when the Superfund Program started, and the early years of its maturation.
Guidance published in 1985 by the EPA Office of Research and Development, “Characterization of Hazardous Waste Sites – A Methods Manual, Volume I – Site Investigations,” can give us some insight. This document was the playbook on methods and techniques to investigate hazardous waste sites to support remediation. In this guidance, site investigations were focused on sample collection—with some statements, for example, bringing to light just how little we knew in this area.
“The underlying goal of any sampling campaign is to collect samples which are representative of the media under consideration in relation to objectives of the sampling program. In the ‘real world,” however, especially when dealing with hazardous waste site samples, collection of a truly representative sample can be quite difficult if not impossible. Nonetheless, this fact should not deter the investigator from making every attempt to realize this ultimate goal.
In the designing of monitor well networks, the placement of wells has been done mainly by educated guesswork. The accuracy and effectiveness of such an approach is heavily dependent upon the assumption that subsurface conditions are uniform, and that regional trends hold true for the local setting. However, these assumptions are frequently invalid, resulting in non-representative locations for monitor well placement.”
In addition to managing the uncertainty associated with site characterization, the suite of established and proven remediation technologies was limited. The first in a series of Superfund remedy reports entitled “Innovative Treatment Technologies Semi-annual Status Report” (with two reports issued in 1991) summarized established technologies for source control and groundwater remedies selected in Superfund decision documents from 1982 through 1989. These established technologies were limited to incineration, solidification/stabilization, and groundwater extraction and treatment.
As the technology portfolio expanded, so too did the pool of firms that were becoming experts in this area. With the expansion of firms came more competition and a better understanding of how to use contracting and project management tools to promote innovation, foster contracting party collaboration, and share project risk.
Fortunately, the nation recognized a need for environmental remediation innovation and collaboration and pushed the industry forward. In 1986, the Superfund law was amended and reauthorized. This reauthorization recognized the need for increased focus and attention in the areas of environmental remediation technologies. In response, EPA established the Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation (SITE) Program.
The SITE Program, while in place, encouraged the development and implementation of innovative treatment technologies for hazardous waste site remediation, and characterization and monitoring technologies for evaluating the nature and extent of hazardous waste site contamination.
Furthermore, in 1990, Congress established the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) to address Department of Defense environmental issues co-managed by EPA and the Department of Energy. The purpose of the program was, and continues to be, a platform for cross-agency collaboration and coordination to promote the development and application of innovative environmental technologies.
Through these government-led programs, considerable work and investment of resources were applied to advancing the state of knowledge, the tools available, and the techniques to better characterize and remediate sites.
An Expanding Industry
Continuing though the 1990s and into the 2000s, under the auspices of the Superfund Program and through coordination with innovative and collaborative federal think-tanks, the hazardous waste remediation industry continued to aggressively expand and develop innovative approaches to clean up affected sites.
EPA, other federal agencies, and private parties continued to tackle the nation’s hazardous waste sites and, in the process, provided a test bed for new and innovative technologies. Most recognized during this time was the pursuit and establishment of in situ, or in place, characterization and remediation technologies. These technologies allowed for a better understanding of contaminant behavior, minimized impacts to surrounding communities, and provided sustainable remediation options.
Looking to benefit from the increased industry base and the rapid expansion of remediation technologies, the private sector established platforms for private and government practitioners to openly discuss hazardous waste site challenges, innovative technologies, and hazardous waste remediation techniques.
Notably, Battelle established and continues to host a series of annual symposiums focused on the sharing of information on cutting-edge technologies and challenges in the areas of remediation and management of sediment sites, bioremediation and sustainable environmental technologies, and remediation of chlorinated and recalcitrant compounds. In addition, the Society of American Military Engineers, through a co-sponsorship arrangement with EPA, hosts biannual symposia focused on project management design and construction challenges at hazardous wastes sites.
In addition to private partner collaborative platforms, EPA and other federal agencies continue to focus on technology and information transfer. The Defense Department expanded its mission to establish the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP). Both ESTCP and SERDP provide training, tools, and funding opportunities to promote industry growth and innovation.
Additionally, although EPA ended the SITE Program, Superfund’s Technology Innovation Office remains a steward for hazardous waste remediation information transfer. Training, guidance, and other forums for discussion are available under EPA’s Contaminated Site Clean-Up Information Program. Several websites contain information and highlight cutting-edge tools and techniques to address hazardous waste sites.
A Concerted Commitment
The Superfund Program arrived at a time when limited knowledge and established technologies forced environmental remediation decisions to be made with significant assumptions and uncertainty regarding hazardous waste behavior in the subsurface and other contaminated media. Now, fast forward to the present. Although not perfect, the industry has a much greater depth of knowledge and there are a menu of established technologies and remediation methods to better and more accurately define the subsurface and hazardous waste behavior in these media. Moreover, the wide array of remediation technologies provides the industry with an ability to apply suites of technologies to maximize remedy performance and minimize costs. Project management and contracting innovations also provide platforms for the contracting parties to collaborate, appropriately share risk, and continue to innovate.
Significant progress has been made, but more than 1,300 sites remain on the Superfund’s National Priorities List—and new sites are added each year. Substantial challenges lie ahead to address these sites and protect our communities, our citizens, and our nation’s environmental resources. These challenges will best be met and overcome with a focus on continuing to advance the state of industry knowledge. This can only be accomplished if, collectively, the federal government, local stakeholders, and private industry continue to have a platform to transparently discuss challenges, celebrate successes, and transfer information.