Consultants Aid Rebirth of Polluted Sites

Thirty years ago, New Jersey was littered with abandoned industries that not only scarred the landscape but also drained the pocketbooks of the companies that owned the polluted land.

Thirty years ago, New Jersey was littered with abandoned industries that not only scarred the landscape but also drained the pocketbooks of the companies that owned the polluted land.

Today, from Camden to Jersey City to Hackensack, former eyesores are being reborn as discount superstores and high-end condos, breathing new life into urban areas where developers once feared to tread.

Helping to conceive these rebirths are a cadre of professionals who have made it their business to turn environmental headaches into profit opportunities.

Environmental consulting firms are the middlemen in the complicated process of transforming a polluted site into a prime location. They can help private developers gauge the amount of contamination deep in the soil or behind the walls of a building with an environmentally mysterious past. They devise the cleanup strategies, secure approval from the regulators and oversee the excavation or removal work.

Environmental consulting became an industry all its own in the 1980s, when the federal government created the Superfund program to clean up toxic properties whose polluters had gone out of business or could not be traced. States like New Jersey followed with similar government-funded cleanup programs, creating a need for experts to identify contamination and figure out ways to make the land safe again.

Consulting firms have since helped devise new testing methods to better gauge the amount of contamination. Some have developed technologies that can reduce cleanup costs, such as sophisticated monitoring equipment and patented cleanup agents that are injected into polluted soil. Others have adopted new business strategies to attract clients, such as insurance policies that cap environmental losses and all-inclusive firms that promise to deliver clean-as-new sites for one guaranteed price.

"People used to think contaminated properties were too big a cost of cleanup and too big a risk," said Ira Whitman, who opened his own firm in New Jersey 20 years ago. "That's not true anymore."

While it took an infusion of government funds to get the cleanup movement started, environmental consulting firms have since helped reshape and expand it. Even with government dollars for environmental cleanup harder to come by, developers still want to reclaim contaminated sites, and the growing expertise of consultants can make for seamless transformations.

"I think as the industry has matured, contamination is no longer a scary word," said Tracy Straka, chairman of the Environmental Business Council of the New Jersey Commerce and Industry Association, a trade group whose 100 members include consultants, engineers, attorneys, insurance representatives and laboratories. "There is now a very, very diverse group of professionals who can assist companies with a variety of environmental issues.

"In the early 1980s, people would pay you whatever it took to make the DEP go away," added Straka, executive vice president of Hackensack-based Creamer Environmental Associates. "Now there is more competition between environmental firms, and more companies that want [the firms] to offer guaranteed solutions."

Keeping current on new regulations is essential for consultants, who serve many small and medium-sized industries that can't afford their own environmental experts to keep them in compliance with federal and state rules.

The Environmental Business Council holds roundtable discussions every other month on new environmental practices.

"They make our clients angry, but ultimately new regulations create demand for our services," Whitman said. "If laws and regulations would go unchanged for 10 years, then everybody and her brother would start to think they could do what we do. But they don't. Change is a constant in our industry."

Not only do regulations change. So does the science and theory of cleanups, and so do corporate attitudes about environmental practices. Those changes have kept consulting firms responding in different ways:

In the early days, cleanups usually meant bulldozers and earth-movers. But digging up tainted soil or dredging a fouled riverbed can spread contamination, so consultants sometimes now recommend that contamination be capped off or treated in place.

California-based Regenesis has patented several chemical solutions that can be injected into the earth to treat tainted groundwater. One example is a magnesium oxide solution that over time degrades petroleum spilled in groundwater. A hydraulic-powered, syringe-like device pumps the solution through inch-and-a-half-thick pipes that can go as deep as 150 feet, said Erik White, district manager for the company's New York and New Jersey region.

This method avoids the costly tasks of excavating sediment, digging trenches to install cleanup equipment, and drilling permanent monitoring wells, White said.

As more companies seek to earn an environmentally friendly or "green" reputation, some are looking to wastewater recycling or running on alternative energy sources.

Consultant Chuck Feinberg joined a small New York company called Homeland Energy Resources Development Inc. three years ago because he felt a need to hone a specialty rather than try to compete with larger, full-service environmental firms.

The firm, which is still breaking into the New Jersey market, designs systems that convert the heat produced by manufacturing into heat to warm the factories, which can reduce energy costs.

"Back in the Eighties, people did things for the environment because the government told them to," Feinberg said. "Now they recognize that waste costs them money, and it's in their economic interest to recycle and reuse."

While some types of environmental insurance have been available since the 1980s, underwriters now offer a wider array of coverage options, allowing developers, for example, to buy "guaranteed price" cleanup policies to protect them against cost overruns.

Consulting firms can also insure themselves against loss if they promise one cleanup price tag to a client and then have to spend more, said Robin Kelliher, vice president for the Florham Park branch of Willis Group Holdings, an international firm. The policies themselves create business for other consultants who help insurance companies assess the risk of providing coverage on contaminated sites.

The future would seem to hold plentiful opportunities for environmental cleanup -- and related consulting work. Twenty years ago, advising clients how to remove cancer-causing asbestos from older buildings was big business. Ten years later, mold became the new health scare. Now indoor airborne contaminants are a growing concern as scientists learn more each year about the health impacts of chemicals and materials used in construction.

Yet despite the dynamic nature of the business, consultants and educators say too few college students are specializing in the environmental sciences.

Christopher Uchrin, director of the bioenvironmental engineering program at Rutgers University, said his program graduated fewer than a dozen students last year.

"It's becoming clear to many in the industry that a recruiting push is needed," Uchrin said. "What we're seeing is a real graying of the profession."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News