An Outside the Box Solution that Saved Our Client $500k+


The calls started coming in on Thanksgiving Eve a number of years ago. Residents in a New Jersey neighborhood were alarmed that the creek running by their homes smelled like model airplane glue – remember that from when you were a kid? Not a good situation.

The odor turned out to be toluene, a common solvent used in many manufacturing facilities. The source? A nearby industrial facility.

We were called in to investigate. That kicked off what turned out to be a decades-long remediation effort. So you can imagine this was a major clean up. But our unique solution managed to:

  • Save the client money in excess of $500,000
  • Keep regulators happy
  • Reduce the time needed to complete the active remediation

Here’s how it happened…

A Unique Problem Turns into a Unique Cost-Saving Solution

Our initial investigation uncovered the source of the toluene; the solvent was stored in underground storage tanks that we found were leaking. Eventually, the solvent reached an onsite pond that discharges to the creek that runs through the nearby neighborhood.

We immediately removed the source of the contamination, the tanks, and then delineated the contamination to make sure we understood the full extent of the problem – and the remediation required. We determined that the site had significant soil and groundwater contamination. Our remediation goals were to clean the impacted soil and groundwater, while at the same time maintaining control of the groundwater contaminant plume to eliminate any offsite impact by protecting the onsite pond, the creek, and drinking water wells in the surrounding area.

In order to maintain control of the contaminant plume, we would need to continually recover a large volume of groundwater, and we would then need to treat that water and dispose of it.

We installed interception trenches at the site to capture the shallow groundwater impact and to protect the onsite pond and creek. We installed recovery wells to capture the deep groundwater impact and to maintain control of the contaminant plume in bedrock, thus protecting drinking water wells. All recovered groundwater was directed to an onsite treatment system that was designed and installed to treat the recovered water.

As you can imagine, we were handling a large volume of water. We obtained a permit to send 10,000 gallons a day of treated groundwater to the local sewer authority, the maximum amount the sewer authority would accept. But in order to maintain control of the contaminant plume so that it did not spread any further, we generated much more water than that. We had to figure out a way to dispose of a lot more than 10,000 gallons of treated water.

Faced with this challenge, we were compelled to come up with a creative solution. And while we were at it, we thought, “How can we use this to the client’s advantage?”

You see, there was a lot of contaminated soil onsite. The estimated cost to excavate and remove it was in excess of $500,000. Faced with already having spent a good amount of money to address the contaminated groundwater, this was cost prohibitive for the client.

Basically, we had been following standard operating procedure until now. And that’s where many environmental engineering firms would have stopped. We’ve seen many big name firms – but really firms of all sizes – who stick with the cookie-cutter approach because it cuts their costs and allows them to move on to the next project quicker.

Plus, with those national firms, often the personnel onsite are young and inexperienced. It’s hard for them to think outside the box.

But with the unique challenges we were facing, that’s exactly what we needed to do.

Most firms would have spent a lot of time and the client’s money on trying to figure out other ways to discharge the generated treated water offsite. But we realized we could use it to help further address our client’s contamination issues and speed up the overall remediation project. We put two and two together and constructed a soil flushing system and a phytoremediation system, both of which utilized treated groundwater from the treatment system.

For the soil flushing system, some of the treated groundwater was discharged into the areas of contaminated soil using underground injection. We knew the injected water would flush the contamination from the soil because our soil investigation showed that the soil was permeable enough to allow water to quickly flow through it, and the local soil characteristics would not prevent the toluene from being removed with the water. The injected water was captured in the same interception trenches that we installed to protect the onsite pond and creek, and the captured water, which now contained the contaminants that were being flushed out of the impacted soil, was directed back to the system for treatment and discharged to the sewer or re-injected to the impacted soil area.

With this flushing system in place we were able to achieve soil clean up in less than six years. And there was no extra cost to the client because the interception trenches and the water needed for the soil flushing were already in place. By making use of what was in place, we came up with a solution so the client didn’t have to pay for costly soil excavation and offsite disposal, or in-situ/in-place treatment.

We also utilized treated water to help support the phytoremediation system, which we installed to further remediate the soil and shallow groundwater. The phytoremediation system consisted of planting juvenile pin oak and poplar trees. These trees actually take the contaminants up in their root systems, and the contaminants are destroyed. We obtained an overland flow discharge permit for the treatment system, which enabled us to discharge a portion of the treated recovered groundwater to irrigate the planted trees and aid the growth of the trees and root systems. The phytoremediation system was extremely inexpensive. By using the overland flow discharge to ensure that the trees were getting enough water, the phytoremediation system matured very quickly and enabled us to further reduce the time needed to address the soil and shallow groundwater impact at a very limited cost to our client. 

Making Regulators Happy by Following the Rules

I must mention that many of these activities occurred back in the day in New Jersey, when regulators had to approve our plan every step of the way. They were tough. But we were able to get everything approved because we demonstrated that our proposed activities were technically sound and economically feasible.

Our approach was simple but effective - before we built anything, we made sure there would not be any issues with our approach. In some areas, local ordinances ban certain types of treatment technology or specific types of discharges. For example, some ban discharging clean water into the sewer system because it adds too much to the hydraulic load of the sewer plant. Sewer plants depend on “dirty water” to run properly.

Some firms design a system, usually based on something they’ve done before, and then just build it. It might be okay… especially if the remediation needed is fairly simple. But what about those “tricky” problems at challenging sites? And what about local regulations?

When the firm installs the system… they can’t get permits. So it stays mothballed until they go through the expensive and lengthy permitting process.

What makes it worse is that the client has no idea their environmental firm is basically at fault – while they pay them more and more money to secure those permits (that may never come). The firm stubbornly maintains that they have the best solution and that the regulators are being difficult.

This drags out the permitting process. Meeting after meeting, site visit after site visit. And because the fundamental plan is not sound, there’s no progress.

Often they can’t get permitted at all and have to start over.

There is another way…

It’s much quicker, easier, and cost-effective to make sure you understand the problem, to find out what technology may be effective and what is allowed by regulations (especially the local ones), and then design the solution to meet those specifications. That’s the approach we here at Envision Environmental, Inc. follow for every project.

How do we get this “super-secret” information? Well, we review not only federal and state regulations but also local ordinances and environmental regulations for every site we work on. And we actually establish communications with the regulators, which helps to form a good working relationship. Not so “secret” after all. But we also talk with our clients to find out what solutions will not only address the problem at hand, but which solutions fit into our clients’ business plans and economics.

The Site Today – and Looking to the Future

This industrial facility faced a long clean up. In the early 2000s, we ceased active remediation and the site currently utilizes monitored natural attenuation (periodic groundwater sampling to evaluate contaminant reduction) as the final stage towards completion of remediation.

We were able to demonstrate to the regulators through groundwater modeling that the remaining contaminant concentrations in deep groundwater were so low that they would not migrate any further and they would decrease from naturally-occurring processes. It wasn’t necessary or cost-effective to maintain active remediation to clean up the little contamination remaining. Natural attenuation would take care of what is left. More savings for the client.

Since this site is an area where the groundwater could potentially be used for drinking water, we do have to monitor it every two years to make sure the contaminant concentrations continue to decrease. Based upon the latest data, we estimate that Mother Nature will complete its remediation of the remaining contamination in about 15 years.

Don’t Let Your Environmental Consultant Put You in a Box

No two sites are the same. No two incidents of contamination are the same. And that’s why no two remedial action plans should be the same.

You won’t always have to think outside the box to come up with a solution, but it pays to have a thorough, qualified environmental consulting firm on hand to make sure you have that option if necessary. One that knows how to play nice with regulators and come up with a plan that will result in a technically feasible and economically sound solution.

There are issues that could be at your facility right now that you have no idea are there… issues that could derail a by-the-numbers site investigation and go unnoticed by employees, facility managers, and so-called expert consultants.

In the case of those who work at the facility, we call that phenomenon familiarity blindness (read our full article on familiarity blindness here). For the pros, it’s something they should have caught.

Just download our free guide, The Top 10 Environmental Gorillas Checklist, to identify them now before they turn into expensive environmental projects. 

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