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Why we bother; the importance of environmental risk assessments


, : Why we bother; the importance of environmental risk assessments. Abstracts with Programs - Geological Society of America 32(7): 138

From an ethical, financial and even legal standpoint, it is important that all parties involved in the investigation and cleanup of a contaminated site clearly understand the scientific basis behind the need for these actions. An environmental risk assessment is intended to serve this purpose. The risk assessment provides an understanding of the fate and transport of the contaminants, describes how and to what extent human and non-human receptors may be exposed, and evaluates the nature and magnitude of adverse effects that this exposure may lead to. Conclusions drawn from the risk assessment then assist the regulator in determining and justifying the appropriate level of remedial action that should be carried out. A risk-based approach to site investigation and cleanup is particularly critical for middle-class property owners and small-business owners, who make up the overwhelming majority of the regulated community and are likely to suffer significant financial hardships if environmental cleanup requirements are imposed. Risk assessments provide a rational endpoint to the investigation and cleanup process and allow limited resources to be focused where most needed. Unfortunately, the preparation of thorough, site-specific risk assessments at small- to medium-size sites is generally time- and cost-prohibitive. Low-cost, "expedited" risk assessments are typically inconsistent between sites and often contain significant errors. This has spurned understandable but misplaced criticism for risk assessments in general. The development and application of well-thought-out, conservative, risk-based screening levels by regulatory agencies is an effective means to address these issues. Environmental concerns typically addressed include: 1) protection of drinking water resources, 2) protection of human health through direct contact, 3) protection of aquatic and terrestrial ecological receptors and 4) protection against adverse nuisance issues. Comparison of site data to a comprehensive set of screening levels can help to rapidly and cost-effectively identify potential environmental concerns and, if needed, provide a science-based justification for the imposition of sometimes harsh cleanup requirements.

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