Cleaning Up Without Making More Mess

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Large environmental cleanups often come with a hidden cost—the environmental impact of the cleanup itself. Getting rid of contamination and preparing affected land for reuse requires substantial energy, water, and other natural resources.

It also may involve excavation and disposal of polluted soil and groundwater, installation and operation of large pumps, treatment vessels and other equipment, and possible discharge of carcinogens, greenhouse gases, and other harmful materials into the environment.

To address these challenges, a group of senior environmental scientists, regulators, and engineers organized the Sustainable Remediation Forum in 2006. Since then, the group has met regularly to advance sustainable cleanup practices and begin developing a vision, tools, and metrics to help move the industry toward greater sustainability.

“SURF’s mission is to make every phase of every cleanup more sustainable,” said Dr. David E. Ellis, a geochemist and the group’s founder. “Regulators, businesses, and the public have become increasingly aware of site remediation, and they’re demanding cleanups with smaller environmental footprints. There are better ways of restoring contaminated sites.”

Technological advances now make it possible to reduce the unwanted effects of remediation, reduce energy consumption, and still provide long-term protection of people and the environment. State and federal agencies are starting to assess and apply sustainable remediation in their regulatory programs.

Earlier this month, SURF issued the first comprehensive, independent assessment of sustainable remediation—a movement to encourage environmental cleanups that minimize carbon emissions, conserve fossil fuels, and still remove potentially dangerous contaminants from soil and water.

Former EPA Administrator and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman called the report “a watershed event in public policy deliberations about environmental remediation.

“For the first time, scientists, regulators, and responsible parties are questioning whether a cleanup that releases tons of carbon emissions into the air in order to remove a few pounds of contaminants from the soil provides a net environmental benefit to the public,” Whitman said. “It’s crucial that 21st century environmental cleanups burn less fuel, emit less greenhouse gas, and still protect human health and the environment.”

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