Companies industrywide remain highly focused on sustainability efforts, from environmental concerns like climate change to social issues like employee welfare and community-focused environmental justice, to governance matters like business ethics.
Within the past 60 years, environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics have become standard, significant requirements for publicly traded companies, with investors driving ESG requirements as part of their criteria. Companies now incorporate more standardized reporting of key ESG performance indicators in their quarterly and annual shareholder meetings. Recent shifts in reporting ESG metrics are being driven by institutional investors and private equity firms.
With recent changes in the U.S. administration and the prioritization of ESG within several federal agencies — to include the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among others — industries continue to identify new opportunities and projects to account for ESG progress. By implementing ESG into projects, many industries have shown financial improvements and an increased value of assets and long-term investments.
Though a main liability concern and an asset retirement obligation managed by environmental departments, remediation projects might not be considered as high a priority for ESG accounting; however, applying a sustainable remediation approach can lead to significant, compounded benefits.
When employing this method — which federal and state agencies have recommended for more than a decade — sustainable remediation contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction, water reuse or reduction, land conservation, waste minimization, recycling, and lower energy and/or power consumption, among other benefits. These same metrics fall into categories most companies use to report their ESG progress annually.
Additional categories that initially might not be considered as ESG metrics include improving a property for redevelopment a social and environmental justice issue); improving habitat (an environmental and conservation focus); and minimizing long-term risk in terms of human health and finances (a governance and environmental justice matter). Applying sustainable remediation concepts allows a company to improve communities where its facilities are critical to the socioeconomic growth, improve its public image and continue to build on its positive public outreach message. For instance, most remediation sites are located within blighted areas of a community, and when successfully cleaned up, they can initiate wide-reaching revitalization efforts. Such impactful ESG metrics are improving communities, which can potentially lead to measurable economic growth.
The technical challenges to sustainable remediation are important in understanding and identifying safe, efficient solutions. Conducting a corrective action study or feasibility study to address and solve a specific site challenge can further emphasize the potential benefits of sustainable remediation. State and federal laws — such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act — have predefined criteria that should be evaluated as part of the initial study to determine and select a viable, sustainable, remedial approach. For example, the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP) lists the following evaluation criteria, as stated under Title 40, Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFR 300.430). These criteria are also incorporated into many state regulatory programs and also allow for ranking and weighting of ESG criteria:
- Community acceptance
- Compliance with federal and state applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements
- Long-term effectiveness and permanence
- Overall protection of human health and environment
- Reduction of toxicity, mobility and volume of contamination through treatment
- Short-term effectiveness
- State acceptance
Having a scoring system and developing a rationale that state and federal agencies can support allows remediation managers to justify costs while considering ESG metrics. For additional direction and insight, utilizing or developing site-specific sustainable remediation tools early in the process also can help a remediation team discover a sustainable remedial approach that’s technically feasible and environmentally compliant.
An example of one such approach took place at a former smelter site in Oklahoma. After significant soil removal and consolidation on-site, ground poultry-house chicken litter was mixed into the surface clay to create a favorable growing environment. Using a seeding mixture of smooth brome grass, red clover and fescue, the site was completely revegetated within months. Clover was particularly successful, covering more than 40 acres of the site. The family trust that owns the site worked with two local honey companies to populate the property with colonies of honeybees, which provided essential support for a threatened pollinator of food crops. This is only one of various sustainable remediation approaches that can enhance a company’s ESG profile to benefit its stakeholders as well as the public.
Whether working on regulatory closure for a contaminated site or remedial technologies for hazardous waste minimization, an integrated team approach — offering a holistic view of the project and associated costs — is crucial to the success of remediation projects. Applying innovative technologies can further provide reliable, cost-effective solutions, which, in turn, also account for ESG metrics.
ESG metrics and demand from community leaders and investors will continue to intensify, increasing in importance by the day. Implementing a sustainable remedial approach for legacy sites will not only support but also propel a company’s ESG efforts, delivering short- and long-term success.
Every environmentally impacted site is different, requiring a customized, sustainable remedial approach and strategy — as well as a full understanding of site conditions and media, contaminants and regulatory drivers — to achieve regulatory closure.