The concept of sustainable remediation of contaminated sites has been around for some time, but it has not yet been widely incorporated into the practice of liability management. Why is this? And are we on the cusp of a new era of sustainability-driven remediation?
Slow progress on this agenda initially can be traced back to the uncertainty of definition. Many operators struggled to understand what was really meant by the term sustainable remediation and how it could be implemented in practice. Greater clarity was provided in 2017 when sustainable remediation was defined as “the elimination and/or control of unacceptable risks in a safe and timely manner whilst optimizing the environmental, social and economic value of the work” (ISO 18504:2017). But still, progress towards implementation of this approach has been slow.
One barrier is the perception that sustainable remediation adds additional costs with little value and may even compromise core remedial objectives. Yet in reality, sustainable remediation concepts can be implemented cost effectively and in some cases even with significant cost savings. Sustainability principles can be applied at any time throughout the project lifecycle and implementing sustainability early has the greatest net benefit in terms of meeting business needs and reducing costs.
As we look towards the future, sustainable remediation programs should be integrated within overall corporate sustainability goals, rather than a separate adjunct to them. Remediation sites can be mapped to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and therefore may help drive SDG targets. They can also be used in sustainability reports as great examples of how a company is meeting its priority areas, and tracking key performance metrics associated with these sites can ultimately be included as part of overall corporate sustainability reporting. We will examine some of these key concepts that strengthen the business case for sustainable remediation.
Cost savings through sustainable management practices and climate resiliency
Fundamentally, organizations select remedial strategies that have the overall greatest net benefit including alignment with their corporate sustainability and overall business objectives. Sustainable remediation fits into this framework by also considering incorporating practices that seek to reduce energy use (lowering carbon footprint) and waste production (circular economy), as well as increase efficiency through adoption of sustainable management practices. These practices are readily implementable and often have the added value of reduction in overall costs (i.e., reduced energy and waste management costs).
Sustainable remediation can also include an evaluation of climate change resiliency, another beneficial value. Problems that occurred as a result of the February 2021 extreme cold weather in Texas are an example of what happens when resiliency is not considered. Several contaminated site liability owners noted that as a result of the extreme cold and lack of resiliency in remedy selection and design, some pump-and-treat systems experienced frozen pipes, requiring avoidable and costly replacement.
Other examples of climate change resiliency include designing systems for the future, considering fluctuating water tables. In certain geographies, the groundwater tables are dropping due to drought, rendering remediation and monitoring wells useless after five years. Taking this into account for both engineering and financial planning is critical to maintain compliance, sustainability and business objectives.
Supporting corporate sustainability and preparing for scrutiny
We already know that investors increasingly look for companies with a firm grasp of sustainability and ability to manage climate change risk. Remediation may soon find itself be subject to the same scrutiny as other ESG-related business activities and investments.
By thinking more broadly about managing liability portfolios as part of a sustainable solution, it becomes easier to contribute to corporate sustainability goals. For companies managing only a few sites, applying sustainability concepts, such as reducing the carbon footprint for an individual site, may not significantly add to the sustainability reporting goals. However, if the carbon footprint is adjusted for every site, it can contribute to a material change related to that specific metric and a significant contribution to corporate sustainability reporting. This allows multiple stakeholders to reap the benefits while still meeting business and sustainability objectives.
Figure 1: Influencing sustainability through remediation strategy and technical approach
Innovative solutions and shifting public perception
Sustainable remediation can help companies find innovative solutions to turn their contaminated site liabilities into either business or community assets, such as community housing or a nature reserve. This approach changes the perception of a contaminated site while making a positive contribution to the community and supporting corporate sustainability objectives.
In a small town in Ohio, a liability owner remediated their abandoned 100-year-old manufacturing site, which was surrounded by residential properties. The site was impacted with heavy metals and chlorinated solvents in soil and groundwater. The remediation approach—a small excavation, shallow trenching, and in situ bioremediation—was minimally intrusive to the local community while still meeting remedial goals. This solution saved 40 percent in costs over full-scale excavation while returning the property to the city for beneficial reuse, and providing jobs for the local community without having to develop another greenspace.
Sustainable remediation can be a catalyst to think differently about finding new solutions to an old problem. For example, nature-based remedial solutions, such as engineered wetlands and phytoremediation, can fulfill multiple sustainability objectives, including contaminant attenuation, water management, carbon capture, and increased natural capital. Other sustainable solutions that generate value beyond cost savings include repurposing for carbon credits, in situ waste management, and local reuse of materials that can be quantified in supporting corporate sustainability reporting.
Rising to the challenge and reaping the rewards
The challenge lies ahead for companies to shift beyond measuring the solution to contaminant liability management by its impact on the immediate bottom line. However, this consideration for only the short-term financial impact often leads to implementation of less effective, unsustainable, and non-resilient solutions. Sustainable and resilient remediation can be a differentiator for corporate liability owners among their peers and represents the continuing evolution in managing the historical legacy of contaminated sites.
The primary objective of managing contaminated sites will always be primarily to focus on potential risks to human health and the environment while considering the broader context of environmental, economic, and social costs and benefits, with business drivers continuing to shape sustainable practices. It is the corporate liability owner, however, that will reap the most benefit from a sustainable and resilient remediation strategy by reducing remediation costs, reducing their carbon footprint, avoiding costly repairs/replacement due to climate change extreme weather events, contributing to sustainability goals and reporting, increasing brand reputation, and transforming liabilities into assets.