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Environmental Due Diligence Can Stop Surprises Beneath the Surface

The old saying "what I don't know won't hurt me" doesn't work when it comes to subsurface contamination. Environmental due diligence today could prevent decades of difficulties.

Benjamin Alter, PG, Vice President, GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc. (Web Exclusive)  (Feb/Mar 08)

• On March 3, 2008, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) released a new standard for vapor intrusion.
• This year, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will issue new standards for the remediation of soils.
• Perchloroethene, a chlorinated solvent used by most dry cleaning operations, has a specific gravity greater than water.

Why might these facts be important to you?
Environmental regulations are changing - and they're not getting any more lenient. In fact, with climate change and other environmental issues dominating the news these days, public awareness of the degradation of the environment is at an all-time high. New rules and regulations are coming online at a rate not seen since the 1980s, such as the aforementioned vapor intrusion standard. And these rules and regulations may affect you.

Once released to the subsurface, most chemicals will spread out, expanding the area that would eventually have to be cleaned up, and increasing the complexity (read: cost) of the cleanup. Take perchloroethene, for example. Perchloroethene - or "perc," as it is known in the dry cleaning industry - does a terrific job of removing dirt and stains without the need for detergents and other surfactants that can damage delicate clothing. Just like most of the chemicals that pollute the subsurface and our lakes and rivers, perc was created because it performs a beneficial use for society.

However, once perc is out of the dry cleaning machine and in the subsurface, it becomes a hidden nightmare. Because perc is denser than water, it sinks through the water column, easily penetrating fractured bedrock and other areas, rendering it difficult, if not impossible, to remove or adequately treat. Costs could easily range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the treatment of perc in the groundwater, with a timeframe stretching into decades.

Even chemicals that biodegrade easily in the environment can cause major headaches. Take petroleum, for example. A natural substance, it has impacted hundreds of thousands of properties across the United States because millions of people rely on petroleum for heating and other purposes, and because heating fuel and gasoline, the two most common forms of petroleum, are usually stored in underground storage tanks. All you need is a pinhole in a tank or its piping and you have a smelly, oily, environmental headache.

Petroleum will degrade naturally once released into the environment. However, that degradation may take several decades to occur. In the meantime, that petroleum may be getting into places where you don't want it to go.

For instance, last year GZA completed the remediation of a spill of #2 fuel oil on a very small property in New Jersey. Despite the minor size of the spill, it was a major-league headache for the owner and many others because the petroleum was welling up in the basement and had migrated beneath the property next door. What would have been a relatively straightforward cleanup without the presence of buildings became a half-million dollar nightmare.

Could the oil spill have been prevented? Hindsight is always 20-20 on these types of questions. Few people would spend the money to remove a tank unless there were signs of trouble. However, GZA's research revealed that the previous owner had ignored signs of trouble, thus allowing the problem to spread.

Investigation Saves Money
Environmental due diligence can pay for itself in many situations. On the fuel oil spill case above, for example, fingerprinting analyses of the oil floating on the groundwater allowed a determination that the spill was at least 10 years old. With that information, the property owners successfully sued the former owners, and the owners before them, for cost recovery. In the end, virtually the entire cost of the project was borne by insurance carriers.

The field of environmental forensics has advanced considerably in recent years. Advanced laboratory equipment, radionuclide dating, and other emerging technologies are making it easier than ever to date the timing of spills, identify their origins, and resolve commingled spills.

When determining responsibility for a spill, the paper trail also can yield critical evidence. Despite the prevalent opinion that a Phase I environmental site assessment is a commodity item, dozens of Phase I ESA reports omit or misinterpret critical information, often at a cost to the user of the report. Too many assessors give up too easily, or don't try at all. In many cases, a simple telephone call to a town official may yield surprising information that otherwise would be unavailable to the researcher. A little "polite persistence" at obtaining access to a file at the Building Department window often pays dividends as well.

In litigations, case decisions often rely heavily on not only solid research, but also sound interpretation of the data and expert knowledge of the regulations that apply to that jurisdiction. An experienced scientist can often see trends and correlations in data that would elude a less experienced eye. Of course, one cannot foresee which cases are going to litigation at the outset of the investigation, so it's important to be thorough at the beginning of a project if there's a chance that cost recovery might become an issue.

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