Bringing Sustainability to Remediation

Our continually evolving understanding of the extensive and complex ways in which human activities impact the natural environment has led to an increased desire and sense of responsibility to protect and restore contaminated land. Despite increased public awareness and concern surrounding treatment and protection of the environment, we have also begun to recognize the need to address these concerns in a socially responsible and economically feasible manner. The term “sustainability” has become synonymous with this type of approach to addressing environmental issues. More specifically, a sustainable perspective is one that takes into consideration what’s referred to as the triple bottom line; the environment, society and economics (Figure 1). This article provides an overview of the concepts of sustainable remediation, as well as an introduction resources available to help remediation professionals and other stakeholders integrate these concepts into the design and execution of a remediation project.

Figure 1: Sustainability Venn Diagram

Traditional approaches to remediation focus on site-specific protection of human health and the environment, without giving thorough consideration to the potentially broader social and economic impacts that extend beyond the boundaries of the site. However; in recent years, the principles of sustainability have become increasingly important to remediating contaminated sites, particularly in urban settings where the consequences of an imbalanced approach tend to have the biggest impact on the lives of people. Sustainable remediation is defined by the Sustainable Remediation Forum (SURF) as a “remedy or combination of remedies whose net benefit on human health and the environment is maximized through the judicious use of limited resources”. In other words, sustainable remediation means taking a holistic approach to project planning and execution that focuses on maximizing the social, economic and environmental benefits throughout the life cycle of the project.

Benefits of Sustainable Remediation

A sustainable approach to remediation projects provides a wide variety of triple bottom line benefits which created added value for communities, some examples are shown in Figure 2. These benefits are particularly optimized when the concept of sustainable reuse is considered during the project planning process. Sustainable reuse encourages remediation professionals to think about not only the end use of a site, but also its possible future uses. According to a white paper by SURF, in order to achieve the most sustainable outcome, the end of a remediation project’s life cycle should be thought of as beginning of a new site life cycle. By considering and properly planning a remediation project with sustainable reuse in mind, remediation professionals can ensure resources are conserved and that the project rejuvenates a site in such a way that increases the site’s triple bottom line benefits.

 

Figure 2: Triple Bottom Line Benefits of Sustainable Remediation

 

Sustainable Remediation vs. Green Remediation

An important distinction should be made between “sustainable remediation” and “green remediation”. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, they are not technically equivalent. Green remediation prioritizes maximizing environmental benefits over economic and social benefits and ultimately seeks to conduct remedial work in a manner that is as environmentally friendly as possible. This does not necessarily mean that green remediation doesn’t take social and economic benefits into consideration, but that these considerations are not primary drivers in the decision-making process. However; as discussed previously, the goal of sustainable remediation is to holistically consider the triple bottom line by designing an optimized remediation path the maximizes benefits to the environment, society and the economy in a balanced way (Note: the US EPA has several resources available on their website for remediation professionals interested in incorporating green remediation strategies into their project).

Guidance for Integrating Sustainability into a Remediation Project

Frameworks and guidance documents have been drafted by SURF, the US EPA and the IRTC to help remediation professionals and other stakeholders navigate the process of designing and executing a sustainable remediation project. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) also has several tools and resources available on their website to help remediation professionals and project stakeholders incorporate sustainability into the project planning and decision-making process. These guidance documents emphasize the importance of careful project planning, stakeholder engagement and defining project metrics in a continuous and iterative way. In other words, the guidance documents promote process-based implementation of sustainability objectives to allow for continual improvement of the process throughout the life cycle of the project. With a bit of careful planning and the right tools, sustainability can be integrated into any remediation project, creating lasting environmental, social and economic benefits, and ultimately providing value to communities.

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