The Environmental Remediation Industry In 2011: Does Quality & Service Still Matter?
Having been in the industry for over 30 years, it is disturbing to see what the environmental remediation industry has become. Gone are the days where having the job performed to the highest professional and safety standard was most important and the price was a distant second or third. I am not completely sure but I believe the transition started around the same time the State Agencies began holding the purse strings on Underground Storage Tank (UST) Trust Funds.
The Charlotte, North Carolina phone book only had about one page of Geotechnical \ Environmental consulting companies in the mid-to-late-80s and now there are a dozen or more pages of them. Is competition the problem? I don’t think so. The standards that use to be maintained have faded into the past and the only thing that matters now is price. Looking at the lack of quality in the Site Assessment documents being submitted today sure backs up the saying you get what you pay for. I don’t know how anyone could take the vague, cookie cutter information that is on file at SCDHEC and try to design a decent remediation system from it. But this is all that the State agencies are willing to pay for? In North Carolina, it doesn’t matter if you need to run that pilot test for more that the allotted number of hours so the system does not have to be over designed to make up for the lack of good design information. If you run over you will not get paid. Not to mention the fact that you will already be waiting 6 to 9 months to get paid anyway. What if the tax payers (what few of us there are) decided to pay our taxes 9 months late or to tell the government you will get paid 7 days after I do and that could be never? How long before they put you in jail?
Just because you are in a big consulting company doesn’t make your work quality good or being in a small company make it bad. In the 80s, a new geologist or engineer would train under a senior person for a minimum of four years before they could move up to the project level which usually coincided with them get state registration. The move from staff to project meant more money to the employee and a higher billing rate for the Company. Now you see people two months out of school moving to project level and others not even registered being called “Senior level”. The reason companies do this is obvious for the higher billing rates. And while there may be some smart young people out there, they still lack experience and it will show in their work product. Whose fault is this? It is surely not the young inexperienced engineer or geologist fault. Would you want a Doctor with no training to perform your operation? That is not likely because there is a system in place to prevent it.
Environmental consulting companies in the Carolinas are forced to work the system best they can in order to be able to survive at the commodity rates being paid. Is working with a Company that performs high quality work, stands behind its work and delivers something when they say they will worth a few extra bucks? I think it is, but I may be in the minority on that.
I speak with people every day who complain about the way things are today and the low quality work the regulatory agencies are willing to accept to get a low price. They go through the motions but then wonder how come incidents that were reported in the 1980’s are still on the books and have not been cleaned up and some have not been fully assessed. Remediation sites are awarded in SC to the Company with the lowest price instead of the best technology to get the job done. Looking at the EPA’s website it is interesting to see how States without UST trust funds and without Regulatory hands on the purse strings have the fewest projects waiting to be cleaned up. Is it a novel idea to let the responsible party (RP) be responsible? The Trust Funds just allow those people who created the mess to have it paid for by everyone who buys fuel in their State. Insurance is available for these situations but nobody wants to pay for it. The politicians don’t want the people who line their pockets to have to pay when they can have the taxpayers pay instead. That well is dry. These are just my observations. I could be wrong. What do you think?
Brian E. Chew Sr. P.G.
I agree. Recently I was asked to quote on the air shipment of some dangerous goods to the Middle East. The product is in metal cans and I called the distributor to see if the containers met IATA air shipment requirements. They kindly informed me that the product was not rated for air shipment. I quoted my client to package the products to meet the regs and when I gave her the price she said the price was crazy. I told her of the requirements to prepare the products for shipment and she told me that no one else felt the product was ineligible for air shipment.
In other words, damn the regulations and give the clients a cheap price to get the work and maintain cash flow.
I have also been the hazardous waste business for almost 30 years. The days of “name your price” is long over. now it is bottom-line or else.
We see it in the remediation equipment area more than in instrument rental. The pricing on the instruments has a wide range as does the quality and service you get. Most still appreciate quality and service in that area. The remediation area, specificially UST remediation where States are paying the bills from Fuel taxes, is low dollar is what matters. In some States it is low dollar wins even when they know what is being proposed is a sham or at least should know.
As an employee of the UST section state and federal lead program, I agree with your comments. We, too, are frustrated by the lack of quality in the work performed. Our hands are tied when it comes to the selection of contractors. We are required to chose consultants solely on the criteria of lowest bid, and the work that is performed is generally sub-standard (at best). Much of this, I believe, is due to politics. Unfortunately, it appears that things are about to get much worse. The legislature, as you are undoubtedly aware, is proposing that the UST section use our funds to clean up AST releases as well. This will effectively reduce our limited resources to the point that the program will be even less effective. At present, the most that the UST state and federal lead programs can hope for is monitoring the sites on the books. I cannot tell you how many remediation systems I have seen that have not been operational for years. The funds are not available to provide simple O&M for the systems! And when we seek cost recovery, often the RP recruits a local legislator that protests the injustice being done to his or her constituent. I assure you that those of us in our section are frustrated with the system as it stands. Add to that the constant bombardment of negative publicity that we in the public sector receive, it is a wonder that anyone stays in these jobs. I, for one, do not intend to stay in the public sector for much longer. Of course, if the deregulation proposed on both the state and federal levels is implemented, there may not be much left of the environmental industry as a whole.
I appreciate your candid comments. It is good to see things from both sides. Adding AST’s to the mix would be crazy. I have friends that work for the NCDEM and they cannot believe what is going on. It just seems like there has to be something that can be done. Even when information comes to light and they get exposed nothing happens to them. It is very frustrating to see the things that are going on and it seems that changing the guard in the State house doesn’t change anything. They all have someone they owe for getting them elected and payback comes first. Doing the work for the people of the State and passing Laws in their best interest is low on the list. Jobs in the private sector are few right now. I would stick it out for a while. Good Luck
I started my career in NC some years ago and I’ve since had the chance to live and work all over the US, currently in CA. I can tell you that the issues are not isolated to NC. There are any number of problems in the environmental market, however, most boil down to simple Economics 101 – namely that costs & benefits are completely disconnected.
Environmental law clearly assigns cost to the ‘responsible party’ who ostensibly has or created an issue. The cost of compliance comes straight off the bottom line while producing ZERO added benefit. In the current model compliance is effectively a ‘bad luck tax’. From the company’s standpoint, they derive the greatest economic benefit by paying as little as possible regardless of the quality work.
Now the much bigger problem. Who benefits, and more importantly, who values the benefits from environmental compliance? Does someone in Asheville derive any real value from environmental compliance in Wilmington? Can someone in NC really value compliance in CA? Moreover, look at the differences in society – some people will save everything at all cost – others would be happy with scorched earth.
Under our current model, the costs and benefits of environmental compliance are completely and totally disconnected. Until we enact legislation that respects the economics (cost-benefit to all parties) the problem will persist and get worse. The more difficult piece is getting legislatures and the general public to think –and act- on a much higher level.
One possible alternative is to change the laws. Make environmental compliance a tax-deductible event. Then require all services to be provided by a local firm with US-based materials. The environmental firm pays tax on their profits, more people go to work and they spend money and pay income tax. The costs of compliance are reduced and the benefits get spread out as more jobs –and- better compliance. Of course, good luck getting that passed as legislation.
Very well stated - I agree
A change in the laws would be nice. I know a lot of firms come from outside NC to do NC Trust Fund work and the same goes for SC. It seems like the States should choose from in-State companies first and only go out of State if the services are not available within the State. It may be hard to do work with all USA made products since we don’t make much anymore. I always look for USA made products myself.