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Iowa Company First Utility to Support New Environmental Assessment Technique

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Ames Laboratory has teamed up with IES Utilities, Iowa environmental regulators and manufacturers of environmental cleanup technologies to launch an Expedited Site Characterization (ESC) demonstration in Marshalltown, IA.

IES Utilities, a major Iowa electric and natural gas company, is the first public utility in the country to cosponsor an event to show this new, faster, cheaper approach to determining the presence of possible contaminants on a site.

Unlike conventional approaches, ESC emphasizes a planned and concentrated coordination of the various components of the assessment effort. This contrasts the traditional practice of conducting separate tasks that fit short-term budgets and schedules, but result in higher long-term costs. At Marshalltown, Ames Lab has fielded a number of innovative environmental technologies that will be compared, within the ESC framework, to conventional technologies.

The Marshalltown site is a former manufactured gas plant that IES Utilities acquired in the early 1900s for its distribution lines. Manufactured gas, produced from coal, was used between the late 1800s and 1940s for lighting street lamps, heating and cooking. At the time of operation, gasification by-products, which included coal tar, coke and other materials, were not regulated. Now, under the guidelines and oversight of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, IES Utilities is responsible for investigating and remediating this former manufactured gas plant site.

The Department of Energy (DOE), which funded the Marshalltown effort, will share results with IES Utilities and will also use "lessons learned" to more efficiently perform cleanup of its own sites. The ESC approach was pioneered for DOE by Argonne National Laboratory.

Dr. Albert Bevolo, ESC Project Manager, points out, "If you do a good job characterizing a site, you can get off the site faster and eliminate unnecessary work. If remediation is needed later, you may save significantly on cleanup costs because you're working from more focused information and you know exactly what needs to be remediated."

Explaining the approach, Bevolo adds, "We start with a comprehensive review of historical data so we use what's already known and don't duplicate what's been done before. We integrate that information with what we learn from a comprehensive 'walk-around.' This, in turn, guides the techniques we select to study subsoil structure and geological characteristics. We use that information to focus a 'blitz' effort of various and simultaneous tests for contaminants. Each task builds on the previous one."

This planned, integrated approach to characterization seems obvious, but numerous obstacles hinder its application. One is the difficulty of convincing organizations to spend more money for a concentrated approach in the short term to save long-term costs. Another is that the ESC method is not yet widely understood and not yet universally accepted.

The Marshalltown event brought together technology providers, EPA and state regulators, property owners of a contaminated site and other stakeholders to see the ESC approach first-hand.