How to Manage Emerging Contaminant Discovery Effectively

How to Manage Emerging Contaminant Discovery Effectively

Identifying emerging contaminants at ongoing remediation sites can send a project into a tailspin while the team looks for answers to questions about how to incorporate the management of these contaminants into an existing remediation strategy. This lengthy process has the potential to derail project progress, create unexpected project costs, and extend project schedules, so it’s important that project teams take a measured approach to integrating emerging contaminant considerations. Flexibility in a project strategy, effective communication, and an understanding of risk drivers, available analytical methods, and treatment technologies and alternatives are crucial to maintaining remedial action objectives and minimizing cost expenditures.

Cases in point

After state-led requests for assessments, 1,4-dioxane was identified at two New England Superfund sites, which meant the existing remedies would need to be altered to address this in the home stretch of the project life cycle. The first site was almost 10 years into active groundwater remediation when the contaminant was detected, and the second site was in the midst of full-scale groundwater remedy design. Both of these projects could have been led drastically off-course in terms of schedule and budget, but instead are great examples of the impact a good understanding of available remedial technologies—both proven and innovative—and good communication with stakeholders can have on the impacts of late-stage contaminant discovery on project outcomes.

At the first site, integrating a new approach at the 23rd hour required additional investigation, design integration into the treatment plan and existing control systems, and a longer operational period. While plant operations and monitoring were extended and overall remedy costs increased, the concerns for plume expansion that emerged when the contaminant was discovered were addressed effectively because the team was able to move quickly in integrating a necessary treatment system upgrade. One of the main ways to do this effectively is to build flexibility into your overall program, allowing for the possibility of an unexpected challenge like late discovery of a contaminant of concern, which the team did in this case. Throughout operations, residential drinking water protection was maintained, and the relatively quick response to 1,4-dioxane allowed the overall project to proceed on schedule, which would not have been possible without an adaptive, swift response to the discovery.

In the instance of the second site, 1,4-dioxane was identified onsite above state drinking water standards, and a year later, it was also discovered in off-site private drinking water wells at even higher levels. This discovery cast uncertainty over the effectiveness of the planned groundwater migration control remedy, which could have easily sent the project into a downward spiral if not for the team’s reliance on innovative measures to keep the project moving. The team sought out a water supply from a private utility company so they could take the private drinking wells offline following the construction of a new water line, and the onsite remedial design progressed from standard VOC treatment to advanced oxidation alternatives. Implementing a streamlined pre-design data collection effort and a proactive shift in the project approach saved the client $2 million in long-term costs while maintaining the schedule and approach for the primary remedy.

Using these lessons for future projects

The discovery of an emerging contaminant on a site does often equal more monitoring, higher costs, and schedule delays, but these project examples show how effectively attacking the challenge head on can reduce these outcomes and maintain the overall progress of the project. At the first site, the ability to automate a new system reduced operator costs, and using the best available technology reduced the impacts to project schedule and costs. At the second site, the project team’s prior experience with the first site and combined proactive and reactive responses to focus on the highest risk potential allowed them to maintain the original project schedule. Flexibility and recognizing what needed to be done quickly were crucial to the success of both projects.

If you discover an emerging contaminant on a future project, work as quickly as you can to incorporate your remediation plan into the existing project timeline. Communicate with project stakeholders to educate them on the potential risks and outcomes and encourage everyone to stay focused on the bigger picture. The biggest takeaway here is that the unanticipated discovery of emerging contaminants does not have to derail your project. It will likely add to project costs and lengthen the timeline, but these impacts can be minimized by thorough value engineering that helps with making informed, timely decisions and integrating appropriate remediation strategies into the project as soon as possible. These project examples demonstrate that a proactive, stepwise approach to dealing with the technical challenges posed by unexpected emerging contaminants can lead to a cost-effective and protective remedy, regardless of the stage of the project that these contaminants are encountered.


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