23 April 2007

The Three R's: Reclamation, Remediation, and Restoration

Here in America's larges Superfund site, the language of environmental clean-up is very important. Three terms -- reclamation, remediation, and restoration -- are often confused. Reclamation is a blanket term often used, for example, by mining engineers when they rehabilitate a disturbed site for some useful purpose. Remediation is a legally and technically specific term for treating hazardous material to reduce or eliminate harm to human or environmental health. And restoration is a legally and technically specific term for returning a disturbed site to a more-or-less natural condition.

The federal Superfund law, based on CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980), speaks of remedy--"Long-term remedial response actions, that permanently and significantly reduce the dangers associated with releases or threats of releases of hazardous substances that are serious, but not immediately life threatening." To qualify for CERCLA remediation, a site must first be listed on the Environmental Protection Agency's "National Priorities List."

Because a state is the trustee for its natural resources, federal CERCLA allows states to seek compensation from parties that damage natural resources through the release of hazardous substances. Montana create its own law, CECRA (the Comprehensive Environmental Cleanup and Responsibility Act of 1985), to create the legal mechanism for seeking natural resource damages.

The figure below illustrates the relationship among these three terms. On the vertical axis is Environmental Quality, defined as the relative "naturalness" or integrity of the environment. On the horizontal axis is Time. When Lewis & Clark traveled through western Montana, Environmental Quality was high--represented by the "Natural" baseline in black at the top of the figure. When mining & smelting began, Environmental Quality declined rapidly: Silver Bow Creek became a lifeless industrial sewer and the hills were barren of trees, shrubs, and grass--represented by the red line. When mining & smelting ended, nature took its course and some natural recovery occured: some vegetation recolonized the hills, and there were a few trout in the Clark Fork River 26 miles downstream of Butte--represented by the dashed brown line near the bottom of the figure. Remedy will help the environmental quality of the area recover, although even with the removal or capping of hazardous material the landscape is far from its natural condition. With restoration, we try to reestablish the native vegetation, return the riffle-pool and meandering structure to streams, and otherwise try to recreate natural conditions. Though of course we cannot fully return severely damaged natural resources to pre-disturbance conditions, we can approach that ideal goal.

Mining and smelting took place for more than a century in the Upper Clark Fork River basin, and it is hard to appreciate the severity and extent of the damages done to the environment. Even today, many years after mining and smelting ceased, the Granite Mountain Memorial near the north end of Main Street looks out over an utterly barren and sterile landscape. A comparison with nearby areas also helps bring this lesson home. For example, although the Clark Fork River looks healthy to the casual observer, lingering toxic metals means that it supports just about 1/6 the trout population of the nearby Big Hole River.

Mining & smelting created more than a century of damages in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin. Remedy & restoration have been underway for just a decade or so. We'll get there -- like the bumper sticker says -- "One Day at a Time.


CERCLA Overview http://www.epa.gov/superfund/action/law/cercla.htm

National Priorities List http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/npl/npl.htm

Natural Resource Damages per CERCLA http://www.epa.gov/superfund/programs/nrd/primer.htm


sbo said...

thank you so much. fosbobetr good Archive

John Walter said...

I have gone through the site and read all blogs and this is a nice one:

Remediation and Reclamation