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Planning a Brownfield Cleanup

Avoid a "one size fits all" approach when considering a contaminated site remediation.

Jim Ash, PE, LSP, Vice President, Patrick King, PE, Environmental Division Manager, GEI Consultants, Inc. (Dec/Jan 07)
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Image Is Everything
Beyond concerns about the environmental stigma that may be associated with a specific property and the cleanup costs, the potential effects of environmental conditions on corporate image should be considered. We have seen several recent projects where corporate decision makers have been particularly sensitive to the attitudes of the workers who will inhabit the building. There was a worry that any attempt to leave contamination in place, regardless of the lack of risk opined by the environmental experts, would be seen by the employees as management getting a good deal on a contaminated property at the expense of worker safety.

In each case, the employees have been highly skilled and educated engineers and scientists who were in an excellent position to understand and accept a decision to leave contamination in place. However, the corporate managers chose to meet a higher cleanup level to show their commitment to providing the best workplace possible. The managers were particularly focused on maintaining their corporate image of environmental stewardship and employee commitment because they use these differentiators to attract the best employees.

How Much Will it Cost?
Obviously, the cost of environmental cleanup can be a big variable, affecting the viability of a redevelopment project. The first question from a developer, usually well before purchasing the property, is how much will it cost to cleanup the site? A developer negotiating a real estate deal usually does not want to hear about the complexities of the issue - he or she wants an answer. This is when scale and cost sensitivity are important. A cost difference of $200,000 may be a big issue for a manufacturing facility that is managing a fuel oil contamination beneath the building as part of a yearly operating budget; but that same cost difference may be insignificant when part of a $100 million redevelopment of the same property.

Cost estimates evolve throughout the planning process. The goals and limitations of a cost estimate require careful communication between the environmental consultant and the client. To evaluate a specific project, an accurate cost estimate with a high degree of precision may be needed, and a detailed subsurface investigation of the property, costing $50,000 or more, may be required to support the cost estimate. But for a project where less precision is needed, simply reviewing regulatory files to establish that there is contamination and that it will cost $1,000,000 to remedy may be enough information for the developer to make a "go or no-go" decision.

Developing cost estimates that are less precise but still support the decision-making process will cost much less than developing more refined cost estimates. Selecting the right approach for any given site or situation requires an in-depth understanding of the owner/developer's business decision process, cost sensitivity, and corporate attitudes toward environmental-related issues. By working with a consultant who understands this, you can reduce upfront costs while getting the information you need to select the site and cleanup level that best fits your plans and corporate goals.


Jim Ash, PE, LSP, vice president at GEI Consultants, has more than 15 years of consulting experience, concentrating on regulatory compliance strategies, remedial design, and construction management. Patrick King, PE, environmental division manager at GEI Consultants, has more than 13 years of experience developing subsurface investigations, evaluating remediation alternatives, implementing response actions, and managing contamination during construction. GEI Consultants is one of the nation's leading geotechnical, environmental, and water resources engineering firms. For more information, please visit www.geiconsultants.com.
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