SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  11 October 2012
Volume 13 Issue 10

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Long Beach Special Symposium on 21st Century Risk Assessment to Kick Off Solution-Focused Risk Assessment Work Group

John Toll, Chair, Ecological Risk Assessment Advisory Group Work Group on Solution-Focused Environmental Risk Assessments and Mark Johnson, Co-chair, Ecological Risk Assessment Advisory Group

The marsh ponds, part of a wetland restoration project in Magnuson Park, Seattle, Washington, USA. These artificial ponds were created during the winter of 2008-2009. Magnuson Park is the former location of Naval Station Puget Sound, which included runways, hangars and other buildings.

Risk assessors and managers, please mark your calendars for the Special Symposium on 21st Century Risk Assessment to be held Tuesday, 13 November in room 203A/B at the SETAC North America 33rd Annual Meeting in Long Beach, CA. This is a chance to get in on the ground floor of the Ecological Risk Assessment Advisory Group’s (ERAAG’s) new Solution-Focused Risk Assessment (SFRA) work group. We are hoping that you will decide to join the new work group. Our reasons for forming the work group and organizing this special symposium were described in a call-for-abstracts article that appeared in the February 2012 Globe. We are trying to promote practices to ensure that environmental risk assessments produce practical solutions to ecological and human health risk management problems.

We had a strong response to the call for abstracts and we are looking forward to an interesting and productive special symposium. Here is a summary of what we are expecting to cover:

  • The special symposium co-chairs will start the day off at 8:00 a.m. by describing the problem we have convened to help solve and how the symposium will proceed. We will pay particular attention to the time that’s been reserved for discussion at the end of the morning and afternoon sessions and what we hope to accomplish through those discussions. We will also talk briefly about the ERAAG’s new SFRA work group.
  • Bruce Hope was a member of the recent National Research Council (NRC) committee that produced the 2009 US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) commissioned report Science and Decisions. Bruce will introduce the fundamental premise of SFRA, which is that upon identifying a problem one should first identify possible solutions, then examine the risks and benefits associated with potential solutions. He will explain that SFRA contradicts the conventional practice where upon identifying a problem, the first step is to characterize the risks associated with the problem before considering possible solutions. Bruce will talk about how we might implement SFRA within the existing ecological risk assessment paradigm by repurposing the problem formulation.
  • Larry Barnthouse will begin with a retrospective look at the 2005 National Academy of Sciences report on risk assessment and risk management at large Superfund sites. This earlier report similarly stressed the need for risk assessment to support management decision-making. Larry will explain that a key recommendation of the 2005 report was for USEPA to adopt adaptive management as a strategy for restoring sites where site size and complexity make it impossible to design a “final remedy” prior to the initiation of remedial actions. He will use examples from actual sites to demonstrate how to successfully apply adaptive management principles to complex risk assessment and risk management activities.
  • Glenn Suter will round out the first half of the morning session with a presentation of what the USEPA’s Risk Assessment Forum (RAF) and National Center for Environmental Assessment are doing to implement the NRC’s human health and ecological risk assessment recommendations presented in Science and Decisions. He will talk about a RAF-developed human health risk assessment framework that is responsive to the NRC and a RAF-organized colloquium on ecological risk assessment that led to an Ecological Assessment Action Plan that includes major, policy-relevant projects on using ecosystem services as assessment endpoints, communicating ecological risks, inference by weight of evidence, integration of ecological assessments, applying adaptive management to environmental protection and strengthening ecological goals.
  • Karen Keil will lead things off after the morning break with a talk about the challenges that the US Army Corps of Engineers faces in applying the traditional USEPA ecological risk assessment framework to brownfield sites slated for redevelopment. She will explain that the traditional framework often does not serve overall project objectives to strive for green remediation, sustainable development, or ecosystem restoration. For example, sites with little to no habitat have been allowed to bypass ecological risk assessment altogether on the reasoning that there are not any complete ecological exposure pathways, even though these sites could provide opportunities for habitat creation. Sites with disturbed but recovering habitat have “failed” ecological risk assessment due to the presence of low-level contamination, despite being candidate sites for ecosystem restoration or enhancement. Thus the ecological risk assessment is often performed but then set aside because it failed to account for the ecological benefits of remediation alternatives. Karen will present case studies and evaluate adjustments to the ecological risk assessment process that would lead to better environmental outcomes at project sites.
  • Kimberly Bradley will take us from brownfields to contaminated sediment sites. While the setting has changed, the issues are similar. Kimberly will use sediment remediation case studies to make the case that the conventional approach of conducting a remedial investigation (RI) and feasibility study (FS) in series produces RIs that focus too much on producing a high degree of certainty about the characteristics of the site, with little regard for potential remedies. She will identify points of disconnect between the science-based conclusions resulting from RIs and the ultimate remedial action decisions made. She will argue that conducting the RI and FS in parallel would be more consistent with the SFRA paradigm and provide better information throughout the RI/FS process.
  • John Toll will follow Kimberly with another talk about contaminated sediment sites. This presentation will be based on a letter by John that appears in the current issue of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management (IEAM 8(4):578-579). Todd Bridges, Steve Nadeau and Megan McCulloch presented the “top five actions” for accelerating progress at contaminated sediment sites in the April 2012 issue of IEAM. John’s letter attempts to use those guidelines to take the next step of developing recommendations about good practices. His presentation will offer some recommendations of that sort, paired with the guidelines from Bridges et al. that inspired them. The objective is to draw more attention to solving the important problem of how to accelerate progress toward cost-effective cleanup, closure and beneficial future use of contaminated sediment sites.
  • John’s talk will be the last presentation of the morning session, after which time has been reserved for the first of two discussion sections. During this time we will quickly take stock of common themes and key messages from the morning presentations and start brainstorming as a group about topics that the new SFRA work group should take on and what specific “projects” might be most useful for the SFRA work group to undertake. Both the morning and afternoon discussion sessions are intended to help set a meaningful but realistic five-year plan for the SFRA work group. We want the discussion to generate ideas about specific products and services that the work group could provide over that timeframe. We are looking for ideas about specific products and services that will make a real difference in the practice of environmental risk assessment by creating expectations that risk assessments will lead to timely, cost-effective actions that generate meaningful environmental benefits.
  • The special symposium will reconvene at 1:55 p.m. after a lunch break and the plenary presentation by Aquarium of the Pacific President and CEO Jerry Schubel. As compared to the morning session, which will focus more on SFRA principles, the afternoon session of the special symposium will focus more on specific emerging risk assessment tools that are noteworthy for their potential to make risk assessment more relevant to solving real problems.
  • Eric Van Genderen will lead off the afternoon session with a talk focused on a sophisticated experiment designed to compare and contrast four available approaches for modeling metal mixtures in fresh water using bioavailability principles. Results demonstrated that despite representing the spectrum of modeling complexity, the various modeling approaches provided consistent conclusions concerning interaction types and importance of accounting for bioavailability in metal-mixture risk assessments. Eric will talk about conditions that proved most challenging for all four modeling approaches and discuss what the evaluation can teach us about the importance of incorporating variability into effects predictions and the need to emphasize the science behind modeling biological complexity when communicating risk.
  • Leo Posthuma will begin with the observation that while exceedances of environmental criteria signal regulatory problems and a potential for impacts, they provide little insight into specific problems or solutions and as such are not particularly useful from a problem-solving perspective. He will use three case studies to demonstrate alternative risk assessment methods that are more useful. He will stress the creative advantages of adopting a risk assessment paradigm that focuses first on problem-solving and give examples where SFRA triggered innovative advances in risk assessment techniques, partly re-using existing methods. The first case study will examine a relative risk assessment approach for evaluating alternative chemicals under REACH. The second will look at the use of landscape-level diagnostic techniques to distinguish the impacts of chemical mixtures from influences of habitat deterioration on a river basin-scale. The third case study will discuss how a tiered safe distance model has improved chemical disaster preparedness around the globe.
  • Cynthia Stahl will follow Leo with a presentation that will take on the difficult issue of drawing environmental assessment conclusions in the face of imperfect observational systems (data and empirical models) and mechanistic models and their attendant uncertainties, including the uncertainties about the outcomes of potential decisions not yet taken. She will talk about using decision-analytic methodologies to facilitate discussion about the analytical questions to be answered, construction of indicators, use of data and judgments required for building a more robust analysis that can lead to more informed management decisions. Her presentation will use specific examples to describe the feasibility of robust analyses using existing technologies and concepts.
  • Marco Vighi will make the final presentation before the afternoon break. He will speak about the need for new risk assessment tools capable of accounting for the complexity of communities and ecosystems. He will speak about ongoing efforts, under the auspices of the European Commission, of a working group on “Addressing the New Challenges for Risk Assessment.” The environmental subgroup highlighted a number of relevant ecological concepts worthy of development as risk assessment tools. Marco will provide a short overview of some of the important ecological concepts and provide a realistic assessment of their applicability to regulatory risk assessment in the short, medium and long-term.
  • Wayne Landis will lead things off after the afternoon break with a talk about international efforts in the early 21st century to examine the risks due to multiple stressors – chemical, biological and physical – on multiple endpoints at very large scales. He will talk about how many parts of the world already regard regional risk assessment as a planning tool for the long-term management of important resources. Wayne will give examples of catchment-scale assessments of multiple stressors from places around the world, including sites in Australia, China, South Africa, the United States and Chile.
  • Eleanor Hines will follow-up Wayne’s presentation with a specific watershed-scale risk assessment example that embraces the challenges of conducting a large-scale, multiple-stressor risk assessment to try to solve a difficult, socially relevant problem. Eleanor’s talk will provide a nice wrap-up to the presentation portion of this special symposium. Eleanor will talk about a model that she developed as a student at Western Washington University for evaluating the ecological benefits of low-impact developments in the Puyallup River watershed in the Puget Sound basin. As a first step, conceptual models show causal pathways between stressors and endpoints. A conceptual model for the endpoint of prespawn mortality (PSM) in coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) will be discussed. In the next step, a Bayesian network structure is created to demonstrate causal pathways between PSM and the stressors pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), copper and ecological modifications. Eleanor will discuss the current status of the model and its potential for determining what types and where low-impact development should be implemented.

The Special Symposium on 21st Century Risk Assessment will close with the second of two discussion sections. During this time we will again take stock of common themes and key messages from the day’s presentations and brainstorm about topics that the ERAAG’s new SFRA work group should take on and what specific projects might be most useful for the work group to undertake. Again, our aim is to make progress toward establishing a meaningful but realistic five-year plan for the work group. The work group will take on projects to develop specific products and services that make a real difference in the practice of environmental risk assessment, by creating and enabling expectations that risk assessments will lead to timely, cost-effective actions that generate meaningful environmental benefits. The discussion sections are intended to help us generate ideas about what those projects, products and services should be.

This special symposium and the ERAAG’s new SFRA work group provide great opportunities to be a part of what SETAC does best: bringing together a diverse cross-section of the professional community to help advance the state of the practice of an applied environmental science—in this case environmental risk assessment. We hope you’ll be able to join us for what we expect to be a very interesting special symposium and that you’ll be inspired to help us set and accomplish goals to ensure that environmental risk assessments produce practical solutions to ecological and human health risk management problems.

Please feel free to contact the ERAAG’s SFRA work group chair, John Toll, at any time if you want to join, or pass along your ideas or words of advice about how the work group might best serve the broader environmental risk assessment and risk management community.

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