Do you like a good story? Tackling the Unknowns in Environmental Site Assessments

Do you like a good story?

It’s hardly a stretch to say that we all do, to one degree or another. While few of us have any close familiarity with the Greek tragedies or have a stack of Tolstoy novels sitting around – I certainly don’t – we nonetheless can universally appreciate a compelling narrative, whether it’s told through a well-crafted Netflix series or even our favorite guilty-pleasure reality show.  I was recently reminded of how, in our work as environmental assessors and investigators, we’re ultimately trying to weave together a narrative of some sort – a story that binds an otherwise formless inventory of site features, permits, spill incidents, and tank registrations into something useful for our clients. Now, before you accuse me if waxing lyrical here, let me assure you that I’m no advocate of storytelling in lieu of a concise, tightly-worded technical report. In truth, our strict adherence to scientific facts and reasoned analysis is critical to our role as consultants and advisors. That’s what sets our objective reporting apart from rambling speculation. 

Yet, when we really explore the meaning of our reports, we realize that their chief purpose is to tackle certain unknowns, which are essentially questions about the story of the property.  How was this feature operated? What type of impacts occurred here? As we seek actionable findings, we benefit from an appreciation of the story behind it all. 

Is the story always important? No. Sometimes, it’s just a tale and only that – and fully separate from the task at hand. Fresh from a site visit, I’ve often excitedly told my coworkers about the famous artist who once lived in the building I’ve just walked through, or that the steel of a landmark bridge or building had been made at the mill we’re investigating. For those sites, a historical anecdote can form an interesting background context, but it’s only that.  More often, however, we find that the background story is the key to a study, and it’s not until we pay close attention to that otherwise hidden narrative that we shed light onto the important questions we’re trying to answer. For example, do you know the story of how dry cleaning chemicals evolved and found their way into the corner laundry in the 20th century? Pair that narrative with your historical site use data and you’ll be able to evaluate the likelihood of PCE having been used at your subject property. When and why did farmers decide to use arsenical compounds as pesticides, and for what types of crops? That story – and it’s definitely an interesting one – might just help you decide whether a planned residential development tract warrants a soil evaluation.

Recently, I was met with one of those increasingly rare instances when, after 26 years of consulting, I encountered a site condition that I simply hadn’t ever seen before. At a series of urban properties in northwestern Pennsylvania, historical maps revealed the presence of several small oil production wells. Having neither the historical context nor the first-hand experience to draw from, I was a bit stuck.  Acting on a helpful tip provided during the municipal file review, I reached for the phone and dialed the number of a 94-year old oil well driller who was said to have not only operated dozens of these small-scale wells for decades but had personally decommissioned them under a municipal contract in the late 1950s. The phone was answered by a kind woman, the man’s 89-year old wife, who affirmed that the gentleman was indeed the man to speak with and was actually out working in the shop. After I noted that we should all be so productive at 94, she agreed to patch me back to him, but with a gently-spoken warning: “Mind you,” she said, “you have to tell him right away that you spoke with me first, or he’s likely to hang right up on you.”

He didn’t hang up on me. In fact, after a brief back-and-forth about Liberty and my reason for calling, he seemed more than pleased to recount his work as an oil producer in northwestern Pennsylvania and described, in great detail, the days when oil wells were commonplace throughout the region – common as backyard sheds and water fountains, as he said. He spoke in detail of what a typical operating well would have looked like, how the oil would have been collected, and how it would be transported for sale. As he spoke, my loose set of maps and database listings became a coherent whole in the context of his stories. My previously murky set of findings gained clarity and focus, and I completed my report with objective confidence.  

What lessons did I learn? I was reminded that on behalf of our clients, there are times when we have to dig deeper, beyond the ASTM Standard or any SOPs, and work a bit harder to get the story. I recalled the sound advice of a colleague at my first consulting job in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1991, who told me to never be satisfied with data that doesn’t make sense, and that our responsibility was to answer questions, not to create new ones. Finally, I remembered that a pile of disparate facts and features doesn’t have much value to anybody – consultant or client – until weaved together with a well-researched background narrative.

This coming spring, I’ll have been studying properties for 27 years. This means that someday soon, I’ll be that old man on the other end of the phone, perhaps a bit short-tempered but with plenty of stories to tell. I hope that I’ll still understand the power of a compelling narrative to make sense of the unknown. And perhaps more importantly, I hope there will be someone to listen.   

Written by David S. Coyne, QEP, Principal and manager of Liberty Environmental’s Philadelphia regional office.