The Maturing of the Ecological Conversation by Eric Wright
As sustainability and environmental sensitivity become core values around the world, a growing attitude of collaboration has emerged between regulators and businesses.
“So often, there’s this muscle memory about avoiding regulators,” said Adrienne Harris, the former special assistant to the President for Economic Policy at the White House National Economic Council. “For institutions looking to innovate, the better course is to be proactive with regulators. Go to the regulators, talk about what you’re doing, and get guidance. Before you file a single piece of paper, socialize the idea with them and understand their perspectives.”
Whether in banking or building, this is a far cry from the almost adversarial perspective that once existed. On the one side, regulators, particularly environmental regulators, were seen as development-killing ideologues, and, to some, businesses were pictured as being environmentally toxic. With Florida set to grow dramatically in the next decade, a balanced approach of partnership and cooperation is a course both sides are now pursuing. The outcome should be smarter growth, which achieves everyone’s objectives.
Universal Engineering Sciences (UES), one of the Southeast’s largest geotechnical and environmental engineering firms, is helping to lead this effort through its 18 offices located across Florida and Georgia. Corporate Director of Environmental Services, Richard Carman, has been instrumental in shaping the trajectory of the company’s environmental services offering, as well as the conversation between developers, construction companies and state regulators.
“One outstanding example of this shift is Florida’s leadership in the Brownfields Program,” Carman observed. “Brownfields are sites whose expansion, redevelopment or reuse may be complicated by actual or perceived contamination. For example, in Florida, citrus groves that may have generations of pesticide or fertilizer treatment are being redeveloped for residential or commercial use.”
By working cooperatively with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, companies like UES can provide information, assistance and redevelopment strategies to private parties and communities in order to assist in the cleaning-up and reuse of contaminated properties. The State of Florida, which shares an incentive with the developer, can offer tax credits on site rehabilitation of up to 50 percent and even 75 percent of an environmental project spend for affordable housing and health care providers. In addition, there may be bonuses for job creation along with loan guarantees. Also, owners and developers can get relief from future liabilities by working within this program.
As Carman stated, Florida is at the forefront in Brownfields Program, which can also include sites such as abandoned gas stations, dry cleaning establishments or chemical plants. “This is an area where we can provide subject matter expertise to clients, not only in finding creative ways to solve contamination problems, but also in navigating the process that can be intimidating to clients who are unfamiliar with the state and federal agencies who manage the program,” Carman said. “It’s a win-win solution for the developer, the state and the environment.” ▸
“For institutions looking to innovate, the better course is to be proactive with regulators. Go to the regulators, talk about what you’re doing, and get guidance.” – Adrienne Harris
A brownfield is a property where the expansion, redevelopment or reuse may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant. It is estimated there are more than 450,000 brownfields in the United States.
Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth, utilizes existing infrastructure, takes development pressures off of undeveloped, open land, and both improves and protects the environment.
Since its inception in 1995, EPA’s Brownfields Program has grown into a proven, results-oriented program that has changed the way contaminated property is perceived, addressed and managed.
An Evolving Approach
An industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience, Carman moved towards geology as an undergraduate and later in graduate school after he realized civil engineering did not really peak his interest. “I enjoyed the historical aspects of how the earth was formed and how our understanding has progressed,” he said.
For Carman, geology offered a combination of science, technology and solving real-world problems, along with the opportunity to interface with clients, legal experts, contractors and regulators. Having worked in Ohio, Pennsylvania and across the South, along with conducting more than 1,000 comprehensive health, safety and environmental regulatory compliance audits over his consulting career, his experience in working with every type of client, along with local, state and federal regulators, is extensive.
In the view of experts like Carman, the approach that has evolved over the last 20 years is very innovative, and sustainable advances have been made in addressing environmental concerns, especially in terms of remediation of a contaminated site.
“Twenty years ago, we would go into an area like downtown Detroit to deal with a ground water contamination problem,” Carman explained. “At the time, the only solution was to pump all the water out and clean it, costing millions of dollars. Today, we assess the situation. If the area is covered with concrete, and the water that serves the area is supplied from other locations, we can manage the contamination in-place. Is that kind of effort justified from an environmental or fiscal standpoint?”
This more practical and environmentally responsible regulatory approach has progressed to where conditional closures are quite often the best options. “We determine the exposure to people, how deep the contamination is, what we need to remove and what can remain without harm,” Carman said. “With improved technologies and methodologies, these determinations can be made fairly easily.”
Momentum for Progress
UES has representatives spread across offices that crisscross Florida and Georgia, and Carman encourages his team to understand the goals of the client and not just check the environmental box and move to the next project. There are proactive things that can be done to ensure a client’s exposure to litigation or to a future temporary closure of a business due to an environmental issue is avoided.
“If you’re a retailer like a retail drug store, you want to deal with a potential problem at the earliest possible stage and not be faced with having to close your drive-through pharmacy,” said Carman. “No retailer wants to subject customers to the smell of gas from an excavation in the parking lot when they stop in to pick up a prescription.”
Looking at how UES’s environmental business has grown, Mark Israel, President and COO, said, “In our niche, as the economy booms and development booms, obstacles to development become less burdensome to overcome. In the fast-growing Florida economy, with ever-increasing competition for preferred locations, the willingness, the momentum and the margins to make the effort to clean up problem sites rise sharply.”
In addition, some see the regulatory environment becoming more entrepreneurial, less bureaucratic and more goal-oriented. “Everyone wants the same thing; if there’s a problem, we want to remediate it quickly and effectively,” added Israel. “There’s a growing focus on substance and outcomes. Generally, people want to help.”
For Carman, who has worked to knit UES’s environmental departments across the state into a unified, cohesive and responsive aspect of their portfolio of services, the timing and the opportunities could not be better. ◆
Florida is at the forefront in the Brownfields Program, which can also include sites such as abandoned gas stations, dry cleaning establishments or chemical plants.