Using a Jack-Hammer When a Screw Driver Would Do

Posted on December 17, 2018 by Kevin Murray

I grew up an auto-mechanic’s son. My father was one of the best, and he taught me a great deal about selecting the appropriate tool for the job. Despite efforts over many years to streamline the CERCLA remedial process, the program seems not to have grasped this basic concept.

On one occasion, I recall working with my father to diagnose a troubled engine. As I was hooking up the engine to a computer that could perform many diagnostic tests and generate lots of data to identify the nature of the problem, my father stopped me and said, “That is like using a jack hammer when a screw driver will do.” He continued, “I have seen this many times before, the problem is this cylinder.” He then took a three-foot-long screwdriver placed one end on a rocker panel and the other on his ear. After listening for a moment, he then proceeded to describe the problem and solution saving a great deal of time and money.

After decades of working on the remediation of mine tailings and waste rock under CERCLA, I am convinced that the current process utilizes a jack hammer when a screwdriver would do. Most of the time remediation related to tailings and waste rock will take a familiar form. The remedy will either be (i) do nothing and utilize institutional controls, (ii) cover the material in place, (iii) consolidate and cover in place, or (iv) excavate the material and dispose offsite. Yet the current process requires years of study and data collection, and millions of dollars, to make a remedy selection that will consist of one or a combination of the four options.

Former Administrator Pruitt's establishment of the Superfund Task Force continues the search for greater CERCLA efficiency, and while the goal is a good one, developing new initiatives may not be the best use of resources. It would be well to look at idle programs that held some promise, but for whatever reason have gone the way of policy changes. One such program is the concept of presumptive remedies. Presumptive remedies are preferred technologies or remediation strategies for common categories of sites. The preferred remedy is based on historical patterns of remedy selection, aggregated engineering evaluations, and multiple periods of data collection.

The presumptive remedy approach grew out of the Superfund Accelerated Cleanup Model, developed in the early 1990s, to streamline the Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study, and even the Remedial Design/Remedial Action stages of the CERCLA process. For example, EPA developed presumptive remedies for contaminated sites involving, among others, metals-in-soils, VOCs in soil and groundwater, municipal landfills, and groundwater, and played with manufactured gas sites. While the application was occasionally clumsy, it was a sound idea. For some reason, presumptive remedies were not heavily used and lost momentum in the late 1990s but never wholly disclaimed by EPA.

The concepts of remedy efficiency and presumptive remedies are ripe to merge, and while it could be more broadly applied, it seems specifically right for certain types of mine sites. For waste rock and tailings remediation there exists a robust cumulative data set, a mature pattern of remedy selection, as well as experienced and sound engineering designs. The existence of this empirical information is exactly what was intended as the basis for establishing a presumptive remedy, and doesn’t require creation of new policy.  

It is clearly inefficient to spend millions of dollars and years of data collection and analysis when a remedy is usually apparent. The program tools are available. EPA should put the jack hammer away, pick up a screw driver and get straight to the task at hand. Quicker remedial resolution would likely lead to a greater willingness on the part of potentially responsible parties to undertake actions and see the productive re-purposing and restoration of hundreds of thousands of acres of property.