Challenges and Solutions to Groundwater Contamination Project Management
Interview with Forrest Westall, PE, Director of Regulatory Relations
National Groundwater Awareness Week 2022
Established in 1999, National Groundwater Awareness Week aims to highlight the responsible use of groundwater, as well as its development and management. This year, the National Ground Water Association is focusing its advocacy on promoting professional opportunities in the groundwater industry through education and guidance on career opportunities. With almost 44% of the population relying on groundwater as their primary source of water and one-third of Americans receiving their water from a public source, there is a growing demand for groundwater professionals. At McGill, we hire professionals with water resources and environmental backgrounds to assist with our projects, which frequently necessitate hydrogeological skills and a strong understanding of state regulations and rulemaking.
What Groundwater Contamination Issues Do We Encounter at McGill?
Although groundwater contamination is rare, it has the potential to harm the environment, make people sick, and have a negative economic impact on the entire community. McGill has worked on projects where nearby groundwater contamination has become a problem for public water suppliers, as well as helped private industries prevent and / or address contamination on their sites. These projects have many hurdles to overcome — both technical and regulatory. In a recent interview, McGill’s principal, Forrest Westall, PE, identified the following challenges and solutions to overcome groundwater contamination issues in engineering and construction projects.
- Out of sight, out of mind: Unlike surface water, it is difficult to see the impacts of groundwater contamination firsthand. We see these impacts when someone tests a well or when there is break-out contamination to surface water, but rarely proactively seek out potential groundwater problems to address them before they become a problem.
- Groundwater problems become surface water problems: There has always been a disconnect between those who study and regulate surface water and those whose focus is groundwater. However, a groundwater problem can become a surface water problem as long-buried contaminants migrate through the soil to surface waters or through soil contamination reclamation projects are discharged to water treatment plants and surface waters.
- Too many agencies with differing areas of interest: Groundwater contamination is managed through multiple regulatory agencies with overlapping and sometimes conflicting rules and regulations. Additionally, depending on their training and interest in groundwater, staff from one agency may think very differently than staff from another agency: aquifer protection, solid waste management, surface water protection, industrial hygiene, and drilling for oil and gas exploration. For this reason, the client may rely heavily on its consultant to be more knowledgeable than any single staff member at a regulatory agency.
- Finding the responsible party: Groundwater contamination can occur from sources buried many years ago by industries that may have changed hands multiple times — oftentimes making it difficult to identify the responsible party. States have funds set aside for addressing historical and accidental releases of hazardous substances that present in or threaten groundwater, but with limited funds available, remediation of these sites is chosen based on risk. For example, In North Carolina alone, the state monitors more than 4,000 chemical spill / disposal sites.
- Self-reported: Given the considerable number of hazardous sites, many states rely on self-reporting from industry and privatized reclamation programs (e.g., North Carolina Registered Environmental Consultants).
- Share best practices with your clients: When Forrest’s family inherited a gas station with underground storage tanks, he took the advice of his friends at the State and acted preventatively to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination by digging the old, underground gasoline tanks and installing surface tanks. As consultants, we have the opportunity to educate our clients on the best practices to prevent environmental damage and reduce potential liabilities.
- Bring your environmental support team to the table before project kickoff: When a potential new project is but a thought — bring your environmental support team to the table. Whether it’s an internal team or a consultant, it’s important to review the potential environmental impacts before project scoping. By doing so, you will keep your clients happy and protect your firm. Clients would rather know that a project may have an environmental issue that should be added to the scope of the project, as these issues may take additional time or funds to address than to find out midway through the project.
- See something, say something: At McGill, we train your construction teams to notify regulators of issues as soon as they are observed. There are times when your construction crew will observe a potential environmental hazard that was not previously identified in the design phase. These team members need to feel comfortable notifying project managers and regulators of these issues rather than ignoring them. Often, construction can continue at another portion of the project while these issues are addressed without compromising the environment or the project schedule.
- Foster facilitation and conflict management from the start: Cooperation and collaboration always work better than confrontation. When underground contamination is an issue, we oftentimes see complexity, conflict, and muddled regulatory guidance. McGill provides support through both technical staff and trained facilitators to who will meet with those that have a stake in these projects: local governments, regulatory agencies, the affected parties, and the responsible parties. By doing so, we can craft the best solution to a problem that is affecting multiple stakeholders. We bring to the table the ability to ferret through the rules, negotiate with regulatory agencies, and determine how best to accomplish the end goal without getting attorneys involved.
About Forrest Westall, PE
Director of Regulatory Relations
Forrest Westall has extensive experience in water quality management and has helped develop and administer many North Carolina Water Quality programs. He has an elevated level of understanding of the laws, regulations, and processes that guide the agencies that manage surface water across the state of North Carolina. Forrest is skilled at guiding and coordinating the environmental review and permitting processes from start to finish. He has successfully worked on many water quality and permitting projects and is familiar with the procedures to make regulatory decisions. Forrest was formerly the manager of water quality programs administered by the NC Department of Environmental Quality in the Asheville regional office. He has served as a member of the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission and as an advisor to many organizations, local governments, and private companies. Through McGill, Forrest serves as the Executive Director of the Upper Neuse River Basin Association.
We see ourselves as the client’s interface, for all of the environmental and public utility management issues. McGill has always demonstrated a commitment to the client and solving problems as opposed to just doing a project.