Water & Environment

Planning for the Unexpected: A New Approach to Old Remediation Problems

A long-running environmental investigation and remediation project at a former industrial site in the Southeastern U.S. is serving as a case study for a successful approach to data management and communication that results in significant cost savings.

WSP USA is leading the project under a state voluntary cleanup program on behalf of a confidential client.

The project was recognized by WSP as one of its 2017 U.S. Project of the Year awards. The award celebrates multidisciplinary strengths, technical excellence and collaborative approach.

“Our firm has provided environmental investigation and remediation services to this client for more than 13 years,” said Jim Sobieraj, client manager. “Because we understand the uncertain nature of remediation projects, the client has relied on our expertise and fully endorses the innovative approach we designed and implemented for this project.”


Christine Albertin


Jessica Hinchliffe


Jim Sobieraj

As a result of historical operations, soil and groundwater are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated solvents and metals.

“The variety of partially commingled classes and a wide range of concentrations created a complex soil management challenge,” said Christine Albertin, project manager. “This required adherence to a number of different regulatory programs, including the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.”

More than 900 soil samples were collected over a 21-year period to provide a characterization of the property’s contamination. WSP then created a three-dimensional model incorporating chemical, hydrogeological, topographical, and contaminant fate and transport data, which facilitated the development of a multi-phase remedial approach for contaminated soil at the site. In 2015, approximately 400 additional soil samples were collected to fill data gaps as part of an intensive in situ characterization sampling event.

“Even with thorough site characterization data, unanticipated conditions are inevitable,” added Jessica Hinchliffe, project engineer. “That’s the nature of large remediation projects, particularly at sites with a long history of industrial use. The project team knew from the start that there would be surprises.”

During excavation, those “surprises” included numerous substances and contaminants that required adjustments to the materials handling and waste profiling procedures. In anticipation of such surprises, WSP’s remedial design incorporated an adaptive soil management approach that would minimize the risk of budget overruns by enabling changes to the excavation design and soil management based on conditions encountered as the work proceeded.

Airtable Assistance

The complexity and size of the project, the amount of data that would be generated during implementation, and the potential for a constantly shifting scope of work required extreme diligence during project implementation. To handle the vast amounts and variety of data, the team employed a cloud-based relational database platform known as Airtable.

Traditionally, data and decisions on environmental projects flow across a communication chain through phone calls, spreadsheets and emails. “This opens the door to a host of potential issues that might arise, including version control concerns, delays in getting information from the field to the office, confusing email threads clogging inboxes, and email messages that leave out stakeholders or decision makers,” Hinchliffe said.

Using Airtable, the team developed a database comprised of 20 related tables used to track virtually every aspect of project implementation, including:

  • Daily log notes, including onsite personnel and subcontractors, daily progress, site photographs, and health and safety monitoring;
  • Excavation progress, including soil management, changes to the scope of work and requisite confirmation samples;
  • Samples and analytical results, including a feature that allowed chains of custody to be automatically generated and printed in the field trailer to streamline sample management and minimize the risk of error;
  • Stockpile management, which traced every unit of soil from excavation through treatment, and ultimate disposal or reuse as backfill; and
  • A transportation and disposal log to track offsite shipments of soil as regulated or nonhazardous waste, based on analytical results and disposal facility approval.

“Airtable was identified as a project management tool that would allow team members at all levels to have full and real-time access to all project data from any location at any point in time,” Hinchliffe said. “It allowed WSP to identify, share, and act on information in real time; enhance our communication with the client; and implement our remediation efforts efficiently and successfully.”

The volume of excavated soil that required treatment or disposal nearly doubled based on confirmation sample results. Soil was divided into six management categories based on contaminants present and their respective concentrations, each requiring a different management approach and associated cost. This represented the largest financial uncertainty associated with the project.

The Airtable database allowed for high-resolution management of the excavated soil, minimizing the risk of managing soil at a higher cost than necessary.

“This high-resolution approach yielded soil treatment and disposal savings of $1.5 million against increased labor and analytical costs of $500,000, for a net savings of $1 million to our client,” Albertin said.

Valuable Experience

The project has proven to be a valuable experience for everyone involved.

“The scale and complexity of this project presented our team with a unique opportunity to think out-of-the-box and apply innovative management tools,” Hinchliffe said. “Fortunately, there was universal buy-in from the entire project team, from field staff all the way up to our client, who was impressed with our approach and Airtable’s potential applications elsewhere.”

“The team worked extremely well together, despite numerous challenges and hurdles, and the recognition we’ve received for a job well done has been the icing on the cake,” Albertin added. “Having had this experience, I am excited to explore more opportunities for improving the way we deliver innovative solutions to our clients.”


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