Everyone is making tough decisions right now about what to spend money on, and what can wait. In this article, I’ll walk you through what can wait and what cannot wait even in our current business environment.
The EPA and many State environmental agencies have issued statements providing loose guidance related to the potential availability of some slack in regulations due to the COVID-19 issue and the financial stress that it has put on many responsible parties who are in a cleanup program. If you are in a position where there is a known release of hazardous substances from your operations or previous operations at your site, there are decisions that need to be made about whether or not to proceed with various aspects of the environmental investigation and cleanup process. Some things can wait, and some just cannot.
What Can’t Wait
There is an adage that says, “Do whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone”. With environmental contamination issues, there is often the possibility that others could be put in harm’s way from exposure to hazardous substances. The work related to investigating and eliminating a direct exposure to contamination should be top priorities, and it really can’t be put on hold. Here are three scenarios where environmental cleanup shouldn’t wait:
Vapor Intrusion Assessment
At sites where a subsurface release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as PCE, TCE, or Benzene has occurred, the potential for vapor intrusion most likely exists at nearby buildings. If there are residences, daycare facilities, schools, or medical care facilities close by, that threat carries an even higher urgency. Whereas many investigations that include soil or groundwater sampling are measuring a potential exposure, vapor intrusion assessments measure actual exposure situations. If vapor intrusion is actually occurring at a building, the occupants are breathing the contamination directly. The VOCs mentioned above are all carcinogenic to some degree and are highly regulated. Exposure scenarios where their levels are identified at concentrations higher than risk-based screening levels are strictly enforced by regulatory agencies. If you are the responsible party for a release of VOCs and the vapor intrusion exposure pathway hasn’t been ruled out, appropriate sampling of the inhalation exposure pathway at nearby structures should not be delayed. If it is confirmed that levels of VOCs in the indoor air at sampled buildings are higher than the regulated levels, immediate actions to protect the occupants, such as the installation of a sub-slab depressurization system, will also be required.
Groundwater Sampling in Drinking Water Well Protection Areas
It is not uncommon for releases of contamination to migrate into the groundwater, and then become mobile and transport downgradient. Since groundwater is a valuable drinking water resource in many areas, the potential exists for contamination to make its way into potable water supply wells. Like vapor intrusion assessments, the sampling of groundwater for the presence of contamination within a well-head protection area is an assessment of a direct exposure for those who may drink that water. This type of exposure scenario, if likely or probable, is one where there should not be delay in making a determination if your release is impacting others. The timing is unfortunate, but sampling of the ingestion exposure pathway in this situation will be strictly mandated by regulatory agencies.
Surface Soil Sampling within Inhabited Areas
One factor that allows subsurface soil sampling at contamination sites to proceed at a calculated pace is that many times the impacts are well below the ground surface. When this is the situation, the likelihood of people coming into contact with the hazardous substance is pretty low and may be limited to construction workers who may be digging in the area. When contamination appears to be present at the ground surface in a location that is frequented by people, especially children, the potential for direct contact with that soil is much higher. While this threat is less common than vapor intrusion or groundwater ingestion exposure, if your site fits into this scenario, be prepared for the regulators to demand that investigation and exposure mitigation measures be carried out, with little to no leniency.
What Can Wait
If you’ve already advanced your site investigation and/or remediation process past the point where you know whether there is a threat of an ongoing exposure, you can probably get some concurrence from the regulators to slow things down a bit. Here are two scenarios where environmental work could be postponed:
Post-Remedial Action Monitoring
Typically, after a cleanup action has been implemented, say a source area soil excavation or a groundwater cleanup, there is a period of time during which routine quarterly, semi-annual or annual groundwater monitoring is required to demonstrate that the project was successful. Sometimes the cleanup mark can be missed, and it isn’t known until post-remedial monitoring shows a rebound in contaminant concentrations. Although any delay in the performance of this monitoring has the effect of prolonging the amount of time until you get your regulatory closure, if it is necessary to route the funding to other, more critical business efforts, it is likely that you can get the relief you need.
Cleanup Activity if Only Your Property is Impacted
If you are involved in an environmental investigation and cleanup, and you have already shown through sampling that the extent of contamination doesn’t extend beyond your own property boundaries, it is also likely that you can put off cleanup for a period of time. Of course, if conditions were to arise in the meantime that involve the potential sale or refinancing of your property, the issue would once again be at the forefront and most likely the work would need to move forward to complete the deal.
When economic conditions turn sour, as they are now, business leaders look to save cash on things that don’t absolutely need to happen right now. There are some situations, as we’ve discussed, where environmental projects may be delayed for a period of time to help out. Keep in mind, however, that as long as there is an environmental condition at your property that has not been closed through a regulatory program, your business and your property will never have its full value. Perhaps now is the time to seize the day and protect your assets’ value. If this is your goal, it makes sense to keep the project moving.