Sustainability is the concept that will see us through the 21st Century – assuming we listen to our best impulses and act upon them. Isn’t our desire to have a safe and healthy world for our children to inherit one of our most noble impulses? This is at the simple heart of sustainability – how to calibrate our lives so we do not demand more of our natural world than it can produce on an ongoing basis. The notion was embraced by developers because it is desired in the marketplace.
The “sustainable” development project became an industry standard, most often by reference to one of the certifying programs, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), that has positioned itself as a crucial arbiter of sustainability. Then came the era of appreciation for bigger, regional issues that went beyond the boundaries of a project – traffic patterns and transportation and how these impacts might result in negative environmental impacts; for example, increased greenhouse gasses for the whole planet – not a very sustainable picture. Assessment of these air impacts is now required in California, and being considered elsewhere.
The idea of sustainability is filtering into places both obvious and subtle. One of the more subtle niches lies in how we begin many of our brownfield projects: Remediation. If the point of a remediation is to mitigate for the impacts of past release of harmful substances, then shouldn’t we be sensitive to looking at that activity through the glasses of a sustainability analysis? The Sustainable Remediation Forum (SURF) is doing just that – meeting several times a year in different cities and locales around the country with regular collaboration in between.
As SURF brings academic and scientific rigor to the analysis of how a remediation project can be analyzed for its overall contributions or burdens upon the natural world – its sustainability – more and more other organizations are taking on similar challenges. This article explores how a sustainability culture is growing from the “thousand points of light” that many different disciplines are creating.
The Key Players
While SURF was one of the first organization set up to specifically address sustainable remediation issues, many other organizations have stepped up to the challenge to provide perspectives and guidance in this crucial area. Within the USA, the Interstate Technical and Regulatory Council (ITRC) has a dedicated team focusing on sustainable remediation.
The ITRC has significantly contributed to the state of the practice through the publication of guidance documents and training. Meanwhile, ASTM International is furiously working on a complimentary series of documents to set a standard for more sustainable cleanup processes. Regulatory agencies are also recognizing that traditional remediation projects, while seeking to remove environmental impacts from the subsurface, often simultaneously create impacts such as air emissions generation and resource depletion. These agencies are therefore embracing approaches to improve the performance of cleanup projects and are holding their own in the development of strategies and policies at the local, regional and federal level.
The energy that has been mounting up in the US is reflected abroad. SURF is proliferating across borders at an impressive rate, with chapters now formed in Canada, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand and other chapters currently being conceptualized. These SURF chapters regularly converse to establish how the international remediation industry can integrate sustainability practices and principles more uniformly.
The next generation of sustainability experts is emerging. In the US, student bodies attending excelling institutions throughout the country have set up SURF student chapters to fast forward the sustainable remediation practice. The last SURF meeting held at University California, San Diego in January 2012 showcased a plethora of brilliant young minds from the US and Europe who presented an extensive scope of sustainable remediation research.
Collaboration across boundaries
The end of the remediation life cycle acts as the inception of the development cycle, making the two processes intrinsically intertwined. Logically therefore, sustainability should play an integral role from the planning phases of a remediation project all the way through to site reuse, leading to the construction of green buildings, infrastructure and landscapes at the site in a way that best serve the community and local economy. The various professionals making up the remediation and redevelopment industries are starting to connect the dots and are collaborating to develop strategies for whole system sustainability.
For example, the last SURF meeting brought together speakers and panelists ranging from remediation engineers to developers, from city officials to the San Diego port and airport, and from regulatory agencies to lawyers to discuss all-encompassing sustainability questions. Representatives from the US Green Building Council, the Institute of Sustainable Infrastructure and the American Society for Landscape Architects went as far as debating how different professional organizations with various sustainability issues can best partner together.
Furthermore, one of SURF’s focus areas for 2012 is to leverage the connections formed during meetings to develop sustainability guidance that is of direct value to a wide sustainability audience. One such paper will be published later this year and provides SURF members’ perspectives on the integration of sustainable remediation and redevelopment. The paper identifies current disconnects between sustainable remediation and redevelopment, the synergies that can be achieved, the value proposition of integrating sustainable remediation in the redevelopment process and case studies of where these concepts were put into practice.
It took years for the industry to develop policies and methodologies for some of our most common exercises, such as the Phase I investigation into the documentation of past uses of a property. Various professional organizations contributed to what evolved into a methodology that became enshrined by ASTM as the “industry standard.”
That standard got kicked into a new world of universality when U.S. EPA put together the FACA that came up with All Appropriate Inquiry and revised and refined the Phase I. Now, we all routinely know what to expect from an “AAI-compliant” Phase I. Can a similar fate be ahead of us for a sustainability methodology that can be applied prior to any invasive remedial or assessment work that the Phase I indicates we need?
With organizations as diverse as the American Landscape Association conferring with SURF, along with growing state and federal regulatory interest, perhaps a new era for a more complete approach to sustainable projects lies in our future. Such projects would not only be assessed for their sustainability in terms of natural resources, but in terms of the other important goals of truly sustainable projects everywhere.
The trinity of goals for development success includes: environmental success (a sensitive and careful use of our natural resources), economic success (if the economics aren’t there, the project won’t happen) and social success (does the project contribute to our social needs in an appropriate way).
These goals are not separate boxes, they are all linked. Projects that are successful in providing important opportunities for the community (socially successful) are most likely to be economically successful, as well. The obvious conclusion is that sustainability should be a motivating goal in the very earliest planning phases of a project.
How to apply this analysis in a disciplined way to obtain measurable results, is the point of so many different organizational efforts now, that it is as though a thousand points of light are becoming visible in what used to be a pretty dim picture. Out of these emerging points perhaps a unified theory and methodology will grow, e pluribus unum. It seems a safe bet that there are a multitude of professionals, in SURF and elsewhere, working towards that very end.
Richard G. Opper is partner with environmental law firm Opper & Varco LLP, San Diego; Karin Holland is with Boston-based Haley & Aldrich, an environmental, engineering and management specialist. Karin is the current President of SURF.