Remediation, as many of us know it, attempts to reverse the damage caused by people to the environment as well as prevent human interactions with dangerous chemicals or other hazards. But does remediation inherently benefit the environment? Could it?
Cleaning up a contaminated site actually presents many opportunities to minimize the additional environmental, social, and economic impacts of the contamination. Taking a big-picture focus on what needs to be done, as well as minimizing environmental impacts like greenhouse gas emissions, is key in remedial action decision making.
The ABCs of “Green” versus “Green and Sustainable” Remediation
While standard remedial practice ultimately aims to reduce the risks associated with site contamination, not all remedial actions are created equal. Green remediation is the practice of considering all environmental effects of remedy implementation and incorporating strategies to maximize net environmental benefit. This contrasts with green and sustainable remediation (GSR), which goes a step further by incorporating social and economic considerations into remedial action decision making. The first is an optimization tool, while the latter is a decision-making tool used throughout the process.
Green and sustainable remediation first emerged as a popular addition to standard remediation in the early 2000s. In 2006, the Sustainable Remediation Forum (SURF) was formed, and they were the first group to formally establish tenements of GSR in their whitepaper, Sustainable Remediation White Paper—Integrating Sustainable Principles, Practices, and Metrics Into Remediation Projects. The methodology they laid the groundwork for has continued to grow and change, and today, it is continuing to gain traction because of the many benefits it offers.
Remediation experts have found that considering short- and long-term socioeconomic factors create better outcomes for their projects. These benefits include enhanced human and environmental health, improved stakeholder engagement, and ultimately, remedial action results that are comprehensive, implementable, and effective.
Current Green and Sustainable Remediation Practices
GSR can be applied to any environmental remediation portfolio or site, regardless of industry. The methodology is fluid and emphasizes that taking small steps to ingrate sustainability is better than not taking any at all.
As sustainability continues to grow in importance around the world, integrating it into remedial practices has the potential to pay off in literal dollars and cents. By addressing the needs of local communities and their economies, companies can maximize their project value and improve their reputation.
And while there currently isn’t a strong regulatory drive for GSR in the U.S., companies should note that customers and stakeholders are paying attention to how companies approach sustainability, particularly when it comes to major projects like remediation, which have the potential to drastically alter communities and the environments in which they live.
A Framework for Applying GSR Remediation
To help companies integrate GSR practices into their investigative and remedial projects, the Interstate Technology & Regulatory Council (ITRC) developed a guidance document that includes a planning and implementation framework. The five-part model covers everything from evaluating where you stand to communicating your results to stakeholders:
- Evaluate and update your conceptual site model. This step offers an important opportunity to integrate information outside of the typical environmentally-focused data.
- Establish GSR goals. These goals are unique for each company and remediation project and can be driven by a variety of factors (e.g. regulatory action, hope to reduce environmental impacts, company values). But no matter what they are, they should be discussed early in the process.
- Involve stakeholders. Talk with the people who could be affected by your project. This could include local activist groups, environmental organizations, and tribal governments. These voices are crucial, and help shape the development of your project goals, timeline, or focus.
- Select metrics, evaluation level, and boundaries. Use these metrics to track and evaluate your GSR goals and understand your limitations before evaluating your project.
- Document GSR efforts. Communicating on-going benefits to stakeholders through documentation is a key step for determining whether your GSR efforts are being achieved. You can document your progress in a written report, field update, or some other method, but make sure to include explanations of the project’s barriers and key goals to ensure your stakeholders get the full story.
The framework is meant to be flexible and customizable to any kind of remedial process—and while the steps might seem linear, they should be considered and performed to varying degrees during each phase of the project. Adaptability is one of the biggest strengths (and benefits) of GSR—the ITRC describes the benefits, saying, “Tailoring each step to site-specific circumstances also allows the level of effort to be appropriately scaled during each phase of the cleanup project.” Many factors, such as the size of your site, project scope, and stakeholder interests can sway which steps are more prominent in your GSR planning.
The Case for Green and Sustainable Remediation
Incorporating social impact categories (like health and safety or social justice) as well as economic considerations (such as poverty reduction, job creation, or cost-effectiveness) into traditional environmental-focused remediation can help you minimize environmental impact and maximize value.
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