Greener Cleanup Tool Reduces Environmental Footprint and Provides Comparable Measures
Published June 22, 2020
In the 1970s, toxic waste dumps such as Love Canal in New York and Valley of the Drums in Kentucky received national attention concerning risks to human health and the environment posed by contaminated sites. In response, Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act in 1980 - otherwise known as Superfund. The Act gives EPA, in cooperation with states and tribal governments, the authority and funding to clean up the nation’s most hazardous waste sites including landfills, mining sites, and manufacturing facilities. The process of cleaning up a hazardous waste site creates its own “environmental footprint.” For example, an environmental footprint for a cleanup could include impacts on ecosystems and air quality, the amount of waste materials generated during site activities, and how much energy, water, and other natural resources are used.
EPA's Superfund program is responsible for identifying contaminated sites and quantifying the risks to health from an exposure to a broad range of conditions, chemicals, and threats. Each of EPA’s 10 regional offices implements a greener cleanup policy tailored to regional priorities and needs.
Cleaning up sites can be viewed as "green" from the perspective of the cleanup improving environmental and public health conditions. However, cleanup activities use energy, water and materials resources to achieve cleanup objectives. The process of cleanup therefore creates an environmental footprint of its own. Over time, we have learned that we can optimize environmental performance and implement protective cleanups that are greener by increasing our understanding of the environmental footprint and, when appropriate, taking steps to minimize that footprint.
Recently, the Superfund program identified the need to create a clearly defined, or unified approach, for data collection to understand and reduce a project’s environmental footprint. A specific data-collection system made up of common cleanup metrics could make it easier for EPA scientists and engineers to determine a standard or benchmark to compare data. It is hoped that this approach will improve both the environmental footprint but also the remediation processes as a whole.
To create this common data-collection system, EPA scientists and engineers assembled a workgroup of experts to address this data gap. Based on the workgroup’s observations, EPA’s Site Characterization and Monitoring Technical Support Center (SCMTSC) was asked to implement the workgroup’s recommendations and identify areas for improvement. The SCMTSC provides technical assistance to regional programs and other decision makers on complex issues at hazardous waste sites. Its structure allows for rapid response to requests for assistance on site-specific issues and access to experts in environmental sampling and investigation. Often these work efforts lead to identification of further research needs or development of protocols for experimental or sampling design. The SCMTSC works with other EPA support centers as part of the EPA’s Technical Support Project.
EPA developed 14 greener cleanup metrics through a spreadsheet software tool that may be used to quantify specific portions of the footprint such as the amounts of refined materials, public water or diesel fuel that are used, or the amount of wastewater and hazardous waste that is generated. In addition, EPA developed a companion Excel-based Greener Cleanup Metrics Workbook that may be used to document and report each of the 14 metrics for a cleanup project.
“The workgroup’s research resulted in a tool that allows site managers to catalog basic information related to the site’s environmental footprint,” stated Terry Burton, Associate Director of the SCMTSC. “The approach of the SCMTSC’s research was to test the tool by collecting and reviewing site-specific information. Four actual sites were chosen, plus one fictional site, in order to test the tool’s capabilities. Various metrics were captured in an effort to improve characterization of a site’s environmental footprint. Focus was given to measurable aspects of the cleanup process, which would allow for comparisons to other sites across the country.”
The initial results show the spreadsheet’s formulae and references operated properly. The decision to use a common spreadsheet software tool ensured that navigation, flow, and tabs were routine and intuitive. The SCMTSC testing identified several proposed changes with potential to either improve ease of input or improve the ability to make broad comparisons with other sites.
“It was an issue of wanting to compare apples-to-apples,” stated Burton. “The EPA workgroup was able to identify 14 measurable activities that were common to Superfund sites. Just as an example of one metric—if one site tracked truckloads of garbage and another tracked barrels of garbage, that difference inhibits comparisons. Instead, every site can track pounds of garbage, and comparisons can be easily made.”
Identification of these measurable activities encourages regulators, private industry, and other cleanup partners to identify and track the environmental footprint at waste sites. Consistent use of the tool will allow for this information to be entered and tabulated in a systematic manner across all sites. Once these measurements are captured, tracking and benchmarking becomes easier to perform with consistent quality; and, ultimately, this tracking will pave the way to highlighting Best Management Practices for greener cleanups. The metrics may be applied to any type of site cleanup, including those conducted through Superfund, RCRA or Brownfield regulatory programs, or voluntary initiatives.
In addition to protecting public health and restoring the environment, Superfund cleanups support positive economic and social outcomes in communities. Many sites – often vacant and underused areas of land – can be reused to help preserve wildlife habitat, create recreational and commercial/industrial spaces and other valuable community assets.