SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
13 February 2014
Volume 15 Issue 2

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What Works and Why - Synopsis and Call for Action Items

John Toll, Windward Environmental, Marc Greenberg, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Steve Brown, The Dow Chemical Company

“What Works and Why” was the title of the third annual SETAC North America session on the general theme of solution-focused environmental risk assessment. The first year’s session, “Is the Cure Worse than the Disease,” looked at issues concerning risk of remedy, how it affects the way we should be working on contaminated sites, and using environmental risk assessment for those sites. The second year’s session, 21st Century Environmental Risk Assessment,” looked at whether the environmental risk assessment paradigm that we have grown accustomed to working under might be ready for some updating, and what sorts of updates might be helpful. This year, for “What Works and Why,” we were looking for success stories where people have used environmental risk assessment, or tools related to environmental risk assessment, and had success getting to timely and cost-effective solutions for those sites. Unfortunately, projects aimed at remediating, restoring or redeveloping contaminated sites generally take a long time, perhaps too long. Those of us who work on these projects have a sense that we ought to be able to get to solutions faster and start to see benefits sooner than we currently do. “What Works and Why” was aimed at getting some better ideas about how to approach these sites.

We want to thank the people who spoke in the platform session. Harry Ohlendorf went first and talked about his experience working at Kesterson and how the problems associated with selenium in the wetlands there were managed and effectively eliminated. Mark Bowers then spoke about Tennessee's Copper Basin and the creative approaches that have been taken to improve environmental conditions in an area that was heavily impacted by historic copper mining. Chris Mebane spoke next about Idaho's Blackbird Mine and Panther Creek restoration, again focusing on what worked and why. We wrapped up the mining-related half of the session with a talk by the 2013 SETAC Founders Award winner Sam Luoma. Luoma spoke about a site in South Africa where the mine is still operating, and as part of the operations, the mining company is reclaiming the land as soon as it finishes mining it. In the second half of the session, we switched from systems in more natural environments to systems in more urban environments. The first speaker was Betsy Henry, who spoke about efforts to reduce the remediation footprint at a floodplain remediation site on the shore of Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, N.Y., to protect the forested wetland. Henry's talk was followed by a short discussion about the sessions of the past two years, as a primer of sorts on the themes that emerged from those two sessions. Tim Dekker spoke next about his work as an environmental engineer on several projects at contaminated sites that involved landscape architects and other design professionals. He spoke about projects where designers, early on, created a vision of what the site could be, which can change a project's perspective from describing what the problems are to improving the site and providing benefits to people and the environment. Finally, Amy Mucha spoke about what works and why in the Great Lakes Legacy Act (GLLA) Program. This is a program known for being able to get sediment remediation projects done relatively quickly.

Here is a summary of the key points that we took away from the session, boiled down for the sake of brevity:

  1. Deeply committed people working in good faith works because it enables creative approaches and aggressive action. It was a recurring theme throughout the session that people who are involved can make a big difference in the trajectory of a project. On the positive site, when great people work on a project, you have a chance of pushing things forward.  On the flip side, projects often falter when the right key individuals are not on the project team. The lifetime of some of these projects is long, perhaps longer than any individual will spend on the project. Therefore, it is important to learn from these people while they are there so that we can institutionalize and sustain success after they leave.
  2. Targeted remediation plus habitat enhancement work because it reduces remedial impacts and recovery time. Remediation projects take a long time. Targeted remediation plus habitat enhancement can be accomplished more quickly than larger, more invasive remedies, while preserving the habitat and resource services. 
  3. Biological metrics work in natural settings because they cut through the uncertainty about exposure and toxicity, and they translate into a problem that needs fixing. We often focus on metrics that are based on chemical concentrations or toxicity test results. In more natural settings, where we have a good chance of describing what the biological system could look like in the absence of site contamination, biological metrics that are more directly related to assessment endpoints should be considered. They might work in urban or heavily anthropogenically altered systems too, but we need to recognize that different biological metrics are needed for urban sites because urbanization itself alters those systems, even in the absence of contamination.
  4. Adaptive management, done right, works because it reduces risk quickly, reduces uncertainty about how to manage residual risk, and reduces uncertainty about future liability. We should work hard on the question of what constitutes “adaptive management done right.” Broadly speaking, adaptive management done right includes plans for monitoring and contingencies when the monitoring shows that the project's goals aren't met. The combination of targeted action, monitoring and contingency planning also can help people plan for potential future liability. Reducing risk management and economic uncertainties can grease the skids for quicker remediation, restoration or redevelopment actions, meaning that the benefits of those actions will start to accrue sooner.
  5. Starting with the end vision for a project or site works because it redirects risk assessment away from describing problems toward finding solutions. It shifts the dynamic from assessing the baseline risk toward assessing how we can get to the end state, and it allows us to evaluate project performance against progress toward the objective. It draws attention to the alternative actions being considered for the site, and the pros and cons of each alternative.
  6. The GLLA model works because it incentivizes and empowers action by regulatory project managers (RPMs), within a well-defined domain, and creates greater certainty for responsible parties (RPs). Another important aspect of the GLLA model, the regulator is responsible for a share of remediation costs through a pre-established cost-sharing formula, creating an incentive for making fiscally responsible regulatory decisions.

As mentioned previously, we were lucky to have the 2013 SETAC Founders Award winner, Sam Luoma, as one of our speakers. Luoma had a number of excellent points for us. In celebration of his accomplishment, we chose to call out some of the specific lessons learned from Luoma's presentation, Richards Bay Minerals Case Study on Ecological Risk Management in South African Coastal Dune Mining:

  1. Richards Bay Minerals employed science to restore natural processes by working “with” nature.
  2. The company has been steadfast in its commitment to rehabilitate the land over the life of its mining operations. Rehabilitation started immediately, with the first patch of bare, mined sand.  There have been no shortcuts, cessations, gaps or hiccups in the company's commitment. A dedicated rehabilitation team has been retained, and rehabilitation is treated as part of mine operations.
  3. The company had the foresight to stick to its scientifically sound rehabilitation plan, even though it took decades for rehabilitation efforts to yield results, in the form of forests similar in structure and complexity to what was there prior to mining.
  4. Finally, on the issue of collaboration, Luoma talked about the importance of:
    1. Long-term monitoring and research to guide adaptive management.
    2. Independent scientific collaboration to give credibility to the mine's rehabilitation work.
    3. A few farsighted and committed individuals on both the mine operations and the scientific side to create the vision for what they could achieve and to keep the vision alive.
    4. Recognizing and addressing challenges to sustainability in the social setting where the mining operations occur.

What we have presented above is a summary of what the chairs gleaned from the session as reported to the Ecological Risk Assessment Advisory Group (ERA AG) during its business meeting at the SETAC North America 34th Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tenn. After giving this report, we opened the floor for discussion, asking people for feedback. The remainder of this article covers what we heard from the floor. You can listen to the recording of the “What Works and Why” overview and discussion for free at the SETAC Live Learning Center.

The open discussion began with the interrelationship between two of the points from the summary: First the point about the utility of biological metrics as a way to more directly assess what we intend to protect through management actions, and second the point about basing activities on a vision, established at the start of the project, for where we want to be and what we hope to have accomplished at the end of the project. The motivation for this discussion was the point about biological metrics perhaps not being achievable in urban ecosystems because of alterations caused by urbanization that we have no intention of undoing. It was suggested that we stop thinking of urban streams as degraded forest streams or prairie streams, and develop an aquatic ecology for urban settings. The proposition was put forward that just as we have urban foresters, we ought to have urban aquatic ecologists who can look at urban remediation projects and tell us what kinds of aquatic communities specific urban waters can support. This was suggested as a natural and worthwhile topic for somebody to pursue and develop.

This led a member of the ERA AG to caution that biological metrics are not the answer to all our problems, using the example of the European Union (EU) Water Framework Directive to explain a way in which regulatory metrics can derail processes that they are intended to streamline. The Water Framework Directive requires controlled water bodies in the EU to be brought into a good ecological quality status by 2015. But nobody knows how to judge good ecological quality status, and approaching it from a scientific perspective has created problems. A shortcoming in the Water Framework Directive states that if it proves disproportionally costly to achieve good ecological quality status, then the requirement may be waived. This has led people to make the case for disproportionate costliness by arguing that we have not defined appropriate biological metrics upon which to base judgments of divergence from good ecological quality status. The implication is that the Water Framework Directive may be ineffective at achieving good ecological quality status for controlled water bodies in the EU by 2015.

This lead into a discussion about the value-added proposition. It was argued that the way we do environmental risk assessments now is not conducive to good risk management. The assertion was put forth that environmental risk assessments should be – but currently are not – embedded in risk management strategies that better necessitate accounting for the costs accrued and the benefits gained by taking alternative assessment and management actions. It was suggested that talking about costs is something that environmental risk assessors are reluctant to do, and though it was not suggested that environmental risk assessors should necessarily do cost-benefit analysis, it was clearly suggested that what environmental risk assessors do should be relevant to cost-benefit analysis.

Perhaps another way of looking at this, we need to start expecting environmental risk assessors to routinely participate, as technical experts, in policy and management deliberations, and stop forcing environmental risk assessment into a regulatory compliance box. This would, for example, open up a variety of possible solutions to the EU's biological metrics dilemma in implementing the Water Framework Directive. Discussions between risk assessors and risk managers about biological metrics would not be limited to talking about the disproportionate costs of complying with metrics that arguably are inadequate when applied formulaically on a case-by-case basis. By bringing environmental risk assessors into the policy and management deliberations as technical experts, problems that arise as artifacts of strict compliance procedures may become solvable.

Another member of the ERA AG spoke about what we've been promoting through the Solution-Focused Risk Assessment Work Group is really a return to the original vision for environmental risk assessment. He suggested that environmental risk assessment has evolved into a rigid process prescribed by regulatory agencies and that this is inconsistent with the role that environmental risk assessment was originally intended to fill. A lesson learned from “What Works and Why,” environmental risk assessment works when it truly is a bridge between science and management. That means making risk assessment a more flexible and dynamic process that

  1. more creatively utilizes the risk assessor's scientific tools
  2. acknowledges and supports complex real-world interactions among stakeholders
  3. utilizes adaptive management to facilitate and accelerate learning
  4. gets risk assessors much more engaged in decision-making processes than were believed appropriate when the current regulatory strictures were imposed.

Another ERA AG member spoke about an example presented by Tim Dekker’s presentation, a waterfront redevelopment project in Toronto, Canada. She spoke about the beautiful design context of the project, which went beyond what we usually associate with remediation and redevelopment projects, and related some discussion about how the project might have gone differently if it had been driven by something other than a political end vision for the site. By political end vision we mean a consensus vision derived by discussion and compromise among stakeholders. What she took away from the example was a lesson about costs and benefits. Members of the audience recalled that the project cost $140 million, and once completed, it will generate $250 million annually in tax revenue. By giving a broad base of stakeholders, including environmental risk assessors and other technical experts, a voice in determining the end vision for the site, through a process of political consensus-building, a project can yield measurable benefits that significantly outweigh the costs.

We have now held three consecutive years of solution-oriented risk assessment symposia at SETAC North America annual meetings. In closing, it was suggested that a group of experienced individuals from the ERA AG should tackle the questions: How do we set ourselves up for future success? How can we effectively use information and insights gleaned from environmental risk assessments in decision-making, and how do we establish our appropriate place within the overall environmental decision-making arena? The implied presumption is that the role we primarily play now – as technical people charged with collecting and analyzing data to determine regulatory compliance status and perhaps to help find ways to come into compliance – is not the full answer.

The summary session closed with a brief discussion about the role of politics in environmental decision-making with examples cited where political pressures drove large expenditures that provided little or no environmental risk reduction. Both successes and failures born of political pressure were cited. Generally, failure might be ascribed to political pressure that forecloses debate, and success to cases where political pressure creates ground rules that promote a manageable debate. It was generally seen as important to draw political leaders into big environmental remediation, restoration and development projects early, and to keep them engaged throughout because what we call environmental risk management decisions are in fact political decisions. Politics plays a key role in defining the possibilities (alternatives) for contaminated sites, so understanding the politics is an essential element of scoping and conducting a meaningful environmental risk assessment. The notion that environmental risk assessors need to much better understand and appreciate the role of politics in solving the problems that they work on was proposed as the germ of an action item for the solution-focused risk assessment work group in the coming year.

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