4 trends to manage risks from PFAS

Authors: Tom Gouth, Jennifer Son, Jessica Hannaford, Douglas Smith
Aerial view of a construction site

At a glance

Infrastructure project owners, developers, and financers of large-scale capital projects are paying attention to the more than half a trillion in new funding becoming available in the near term earmarked for programs including, roads, bridges, transit, rail, broadband, electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

Infrastructure project owners, developers, and financers of large-scale capital projects are paying attention to the more than half a trillion in new funding becoming available in the near term earmarked for programs including, roads, bridges, transit, rail, broadband, electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

As reported by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2021 Report Card for US Infrastructure, our infrastructure rate is a C-. This reinforces the need for significant investment to repair assets across the nation, which includes nearly 30% of Pennsylvania roads and more than 50% of Rhode Island roads in disrepair as two examples that shed light on the broader challenge that the US faces. Across the border to the north, investments are being made in Canada, improving transportation systems and upgrades to water and other utilities accommodating the growth of communities, in addition to similar challenges of aging infrastructure.

Construction of these infrastructure projects typically require significant earthworks, including the movement and management of soil, some of which may be impacted from historic chemical releases, legacy operations, or materials taken from other historic uses that may present a challenge for use and final disposition. While management of environmentally impacted soil is business as usual for many construction projects, new regulations for emerging contaminants such as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have significant potential implications to infrastructure projects. Emerging regulations by the USEPA, such as the recent PFAS Strategic Roadmap and state-led efforts across the US are focused on addressing the multi-media challenges associated with PFAS in the environment in soil, groundwater, surface water, and air. To prepare for construction projects on the horizon, specifically those where there will be earthworks, infrastructure developers and owners will be better prepared to manage the risks of emerging compounds, like PFAS, from the excess soil.

Maria Lehman, GHD’s U.S. director of infrastructure and ASCE president-elect adds insight to reducing risks and project lifecycle costs:

As we make project decisions, it is critical to spend the supplemental funding in the early stages of project planning. Environmental Risk Management is key to deliver projects on time and within schedule. The early work greatly reduces project risks for cost, budget and liability as well as reducing overall lifecycle costs. It is critical to have the planning done by licensed professions that understand all the potential risks and how they overlap. Typically, this planning has been done by financial planners and not licensed engineers and professional geologists or environmental scientists. Since the upfront planning and design is typically 2-4% of lifecycle costs, and small additional investment upfront creates large long-term savings.”
Maria Lehman, U.S. director of infrastructure and ASCE president-elect at GHD

When contemplating managing excess soil and the potential risks from PFAS and other emerging compounds during construction projects, consider the potential outcomes from two recent construction projects:

Example 1. The project owner invested in a limited assessment to characterize soil excavated during construction of an infrastructure project, which did not consider the potential risks from PFAS. After budgets were established, design and plans were approved and construction started, elevated concentrations of PFAS in soil were identified at the site. This resulted in an additional cost of $2 million for the project owner—not previously budgeted—to manage the PFAS impacted soil as waste. Also, the added time was not considered in the project schedule, thus affecting the critical path. This setback placed the project under unexpected budgetary and time constraints.

Example 2. Converse to Example 1, in this case, the project owners invested in upfront assessment and sought advice from Qualified Professionals (QP), who informed the owners of the risks from compounds on site, including PFAS. This was factored into the project budget and timeline. Allowing the owners to evaluate their best- and worst-case options, including potential infrastructure design changes and remediation, reuse and disposal options. The presence of PFAS-impacted soil was considered in the project planning and design, such that the soil could be managed appropriately, and critical path was maintained.

As a global firm, we have seen regulations and best practices evolve around the world with respect to managing excess soils. As a team of QPs, we have been advising our clients of the implications from the parallel evolution of regulations with respect to PFAS and other emerging compounds.

Management of excess soil has long been an uncertainty for construction projects and these uncertainties have been exacerbated by a heightened focus on emerging compounds like PFAS. While several recent findings indicate these compounds concern human health and the environment, there is little consensus as to what concentrations become a concern or even what PFAS compounds should be considered during a site assessment.

While these uncertainties are expected to prevail, we have seen several trends that shed new light on how property and project owners can manage the risks from emerging compounds that may be in excess soil generated from development projects.

1. Soil as a resource to be valued

Excess soil has long been treated as a waste product, perceived to contain compounds harmful to people and the environment. Around the world, the most recent legislation has intended to find new beneficial ways to use excess soil, even soil when elevated concentrations of compounds are present, provided it can be done safely. With these new regulations, excess soil can now be considered a potential asset for redevelopment or engineering fill. As regulations with respect to excess soils and PFAS and other emerging compounds evolve, project owners should seek support to find the highest and best use for excess soil.

2. Minimize landfilling of soil

Partly out of concern for potential liabilities from soil removed from their construction sites, developers have long had the practice of paying for all impacted soil to be disposed of in landfills. This is increasingly not an option – to a certain extent because of the need to conserve landfill space. And because soil is now seen as a resource in a circular economy. Even if PFAS are present in excess soil, every effort to avoid landfilling of soil should continue, such that suitable reuse options can be considered and evaluated based on concentrations. Stabilizing agents have been proven to bind PFAS (and other constituents), thus making it suitable to safely reuse on-site in many situations.

3. More certainty around regulatory expectations

Legislation is increasingly detailed to help project owners manage the risks from reuse of impacted soil. New regulations in the Canadian province of Ontario, the development of which our team played a role, are one example – as are developing regulations on soil in British Columbia. We are closely following the evolution of regulations with respect to PFAS and other emerging compounds and will continue to provide strategic consulting and client advisory services to help inform decisions.

4. More attention to emerging compounds (such as PFAS)

Most regulated compounds, such as petroleum hydrocarbons or chlorinated solvents, are well understood such that potential outcomes can be more clearly defined. However, for emerging compounds such as PFAS, the rapidly evolving science, and the lack of consensus from regulators as to the potential human health and environmental risk create new layers of uncertainty. This has been a challenge for many project owners, partly because the standards and expectations are unclear and can differ widely across jurisdictions.

Know how to engage the right professional support

Upfront investment can provide more certainty and enables project owners to maximize the beneficial reuse of soil, even if impacted with PFAS or other constituents, minimizing costs for managing soil as waste. When considering PFAS or other emerging compounds, it is important to consider how the assessment will inform decisions.

Note the outcomes in the two stories at the beginning of this article. In the first example, the risk was not managed effectively, and the project was not well planned. The project owner chose the reactive path to manage the risk during the construction phase but lacked the resources (i.e., money) to mitigate it properly. In the second example, the project owner decided to mitigate the risk during the planning stage and undertook the appropriate investigations to define and mitigate the risk.

Given the evolution of global regulations with respect to both excess soil and emerging compounds, it is prudent for project owners to engage a QP from a reputable organization. A Qualified Person works with their colleagues offering a range of skill sets including geotechnical engineering, hydrogeology and if appropriate, archaeology, to determine potential issues and make recommendations on dealing with them. Working with a skilled and experienced Qualified Person can go a long way towards managing risks and demonstrating due diligence. As a global leader with respect to both management of excess soil and emerging compounds such as PFAS, we (and our clients) benefit from the lessons learned around the world, and best management practices from jurisdictions with further advanced regulations and risk mitigation strategies.