Not a panacea
Ecological revitalization and conservation-oriented outcomes aren’t a shortcut for property cleanup. Regulatory authorities don’t lower their standards or allow an ecological reuse scenario to reduce the effectiveness of a cleanup measure. The reuse option must always protect human health and the environment.
Under most state cleanup programs, contamination is either completely removed, cleaned up to acceptable levels, or managed using protective measures that reduce the possibility of exposure to the contamination. (At Chevy in the Hole, a soil and vegetative cap was installed to further isolate the contamination, to limit the movement of water, and to protect people and wildlife.)
However, the presence of certain contaminants (i.e., persistent pollutants that are readily bioavailable, such as metals and certain hydrocarbons) may preclude ecological revitalization efforts altogether. Accordingly, complex analyses are often required to confirm the protectiveness of a proposed remedy. And, while ecological revitalization can be considered at all contaminated properties, it may not be appropriate for all properties.
The extent of federal or state involvement in supporting ecological revitalization at a contaminated property depends on the cleanup program involved, the operating legal authorities, and the specific property at issue. Under EPA’s Brownfields Program, the agency will provide technical assistance regarding plans for incorporating ecological and other “green” elements into the cleanup and reuse of a site; however, they typically view these as “enhancements” that are not critical to the actual revitalization or reuse activities themselves. Other federal programs, such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, encourage and support ecological revitalization, but do so through state-delegated initiatives and similar collaborative efforts. Many state cleanup programs also limit funding for activities not directly needed for the protection of human health and the environment.
That said, ecological revitalization efforts are generally not considered enhancements if the activities are necessary for the anticipated future use of the property or to restore an ecological function. In these instances, such activities can be considered and incorporated into a cleanup plan and are typically funded as part of the overall remedy.
The cost of extensive revitalization efforts required to create or restore the function of an ecosystem can also be justified in many instances – even if the revitalization is required due to adverse impacts resulting from the cleanup itself. With Chevy Commons the grasses, shrubs, and other native plants improved the property’s aesthetics and ecological function. The City of Flint also leveraged $2 million in EPA Revolving Loan Cleanup Subgrants to help construct a landscaped cap that sealed off contamination from the aboveground environment and significantly reduced the migration of pollutants. Further, the U.S. Forest Service provided $1.2 million to support the application of phyto-technologies, which helped advance reforestation and habitat development, an important part of the conceptual site plan and overall ecological revitalization goal.
Factors related to natural resources and ecological revitalization are becoming increasingly common in the design and implementation of cleanup actions at contaminated properties. Today, sustainable remediation practices are being used to confirm contaminated properties are managed in a manner that 1) protects human health and the environment; 2) complies with federal, state, and local cleanup requirements; and 3) allows for safe ecological revitalization. The use of phyto-technologies offers elements of source control, treatment, and containment. At sites like Chevy Commons, native grasslands, shrublands, wetlands, and reforestation zones are being used to create a sustainable remediation landscape; one that collects stormwater runoff, filters pollutants, uptakes, degrades and sequesters contaminants, and yields conservation-oriented outcomes centered on ecological revitalization.
1. Wildlife Habitat Council. (2017, April). Transforming Remediation Sites into Conservation Assets: How Companies Leverage Business Needs for Positive Environmental Outcomes. Retrieved from: http://www.wildlifehc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/WHC-White-Paper_Transforming-Remediation-Sites-Into-Conservation-Assets.pdf
2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. (2009, February). Ecological revitalization: Turning Contaminated Properties into Community Assets. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-04/documents/ecological_revitalization_turning_contaminated_properties_into_community_assets.pdf
3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. (2008, April). Green Remediation: Incorporating Sustainable Environmental Practices into Remediation of Contaminated Sites. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-04/documents/green-remediation-primer.pdf
View PDF of White Paper