• Tolerating Uncertainty

  • Published July 15th 2015.
    By Bill Leedham, QP, CESA,.

    I was recently asked “How do you deal with the stress from uncertainty; especially when assessing contaminated properties?” I replied that there are two levels of uncertainty to consider. The first relates to things you cannot control – the weather, your favourite sports team winning a championship – and the less time spent worrying about these the less stress you get. The other level is trying to manage uncertainty and possible stress that is inherent to environmental consulting, particularly when dealing with many unknown variables.

    To paraphrase former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous quote: “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. But there are also unknown unknowns.” This holds true for the assessment of contaminated properties. We, as consultants, know certain things like regional geology, documented industrial activities, and identification of potential environmental concerns; and a well-planned site investigation will assist in understanding the ‘known unknowns’ such as groundwater flow, contaminant fate and transport. But there will always be ‘unknown unknowns’ that can generate uncertainty and doubt – undocumented spills or discharges, conditions beneath and between investigated locations, faulty or negligent data collection and interpretation.

    Phase 1 and 2 Environmental Site Assessments are required for many purposes, including transactional due diligence, financing, and to facilitate site remediation and redevelopment. These uses generate varied stakeholders in the ESA process – owners, banks, regulators, consultants, neighbours and in some cases the media and the general public; resulting in varying degrees of risk tolerance. For example, the comfort level to satisfy an existing owner that their property is suitable for continued industrial use may be significantly less than the site investigation and assurances required for the purchase, financing, and permitting for re-development of a contaminated Brownfield site.

    Environmental consultants must strive to reduce the uncertainties of site assessment; to manage and understand the implications of any ambiguities; and to acknowledge the different objectives of varied stakeholders. This can be a tricky balancing act, requiring common sense, backed by technical knowledge and the application of sound scientific principles. American physicist Brian Greene sums this up well, saying: “Exploring the unknown requires tolerating uncertainty”. If you feel you must achieve absolute certainty to sleep well at night, then perhaps a career as an environmental consultant is not for you. In my next blog I will discuss some technical aspects of uncertainty related to Environmental Site Assessment, and methods of reducing this uncertainty to more ‘acceptable’ levels.