Langan has installed remediation equipment in tight spaces, such as building basements, where necessary. — Courtesy: Langan
By Joshua Burd
Stewart Abrams has seen it countless times — a corner property in a city such as Newark, Jersey City or New Brunswick, with enough potential to pique a developer’s interest.
Yet the property is saddled with a shuttered dry cleaner or a vacant gas station, which more than likely requires a costly environmental cleanup.
In years past, it wasn’t worth the hassle.
“It just sits there,” said Abrams, a principal and vice president with Langan, the engineering and environmental consulting firm. “And you know it’s because the environmental is killing it.”
But as he notes, owners and developers are increasingly willing to consider more challenged sites, thanks in part to the growth of technologies that provide a more cost-effective and less disruptive form of environmental cleanup. Chief among them are so-called in-situ remediation methods, in which contaminants are treated or destroyed in place — within the confines of the property — rather than hauling away the soil to be treated off-site.
“All of these in-situ techniques get you to be able to reposition the property without either breaking the bank, breaking the schedule or doing the impossible,” Abrams said, later adding: “It’s always an option. It becomes time versus money.”
That niche has been all the more valuable to Langan, which counts many of the country’s top developers as its clients, and complements the firm’s broad platform of geotechnical and civil engineering services. Nationwide, the Parsippany-based company has packaged those services with those of its remediation technology group, which Abrams leads, providing a creative, full-service option for clients seeking to redevelop contaminated sites.
And Langan sees no shortage of upside in New Jersey, where land is increasingly scarce.
“That corner gas station now can be developed, or that dry cleaner can be developed,” Abrams said. “These (owners) are all for it.”
It only helps that in-situ remediation comes in multiple forms, Abrams said, from the use of air and heat to chemicals and microorganisms that attack the contaminants in place. And he has seen those technologies evolve over more than two decades.
After beginning his career as a water and wastewater specialist, he moved into remediation almost exclusively in the mid-1990s, he said. At the time, he was working for a Mercer County-based firm and served as the lead applications engineer for the in-place remediation technologies that the company was developing.
“The guys on the other side of the hall were mad scientists in laboratories,” he joked. “And they’d throw stuff over the transom and go, ‘Can you find a field site for this?’ ”
That allowed him to see the technology ahead of others in the industry, he said. And it paved the way for him to join Langan in 2007 with a mission to build the firm’s focus on technology-driven remediation.
The concept has long since gained traction, but Abrams noted that in the 1990s and even the early 2000s, “a lot of the development clients were very leery of technology because there had been notable failures.”
“It didn’t operate in a predictable manner because, basically, people’s knowledge of it was not as high and people’s understanding of how to manage the inevitable contingencies was also not as high,” he said. But remediation professionals who have become familiar and experienced with the science can now guard against those missteps.
“These technologies have become more ‘plug and chug’ and how to deal with them when they don’t quite go where you want them to go has become much better,” he added. “And the developers and people who finance these projects have become extremely comfortable and you can figure out how to do them.”
Years of experience in the field have also allowed Abrams and his team to provide certainty and cost estimates to developers that are willing to consider forms of in-situ remediation. As a result, those clients can now decide if they’d like to choose those methods over conventional remediation and capture the potential cost savings, typically in exchange for time.
The oldest among them is a method known as air sparging and soil vapor extraction, in which teams use wells to inject air into the ground water, causing the contaminants to evaporate as a gas that can be captured by a vacuum system. Remediation experts can use such a method under an existing building. The method also works well for organic materials such as dry cleaner solvents and gasoline, he said, noting that it also can be done in conjunction with simultaneous construction and site work.
And it has made owners and developers increasingly willing to consider projects at former dry cleaners and service station sites, which were far less appealing 20 to 30 years ago.
Abrams’ team has also successfully used chemical oxidation, which uses a chemical to destroy contaminants below the surface, along with what is known as emulsified zero valent iron, or EZVI. The latter involves a combination of tiny iron particles, smaller than a human hair, that are encapsulated in vegetable oil, which are pumped into the ground. The iron then rusts in place, doing so while destroying the contaminants, while the vegetable oil ultimately becomes food for organisms such as bacteria that “take a little time to grow up … and then finish the job.”
To that end, Abrams’ team has also used forms of bio-remediation as a more sustainable method, which uses microorganisms to feed on and break down the pollutants in place.
“Part of what makes a lot of these technologies go is that you can inject into them,” Abrams said, although not every site is conducive to doing so. For instance, he pointed to a client whose site was made of clay.
“Imagine trying to inject into Silly Putty,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen, so now you have to think about: ‘How do I get rid of this stuff, especially if I can’t inject anything because it just won’t work?’”
Often, that calls for thermal remediation — essentially, putting an insulated cover on the site and using wells to conduct heat to dry out the property, forcing the contaminants to boil away with the water. The method is not only effective, but efficient.
As to whether in-situ remediation has any limitations, Abrams conceded that “digging it up and taking it away is still always faster.” But a counter argument is that in-place remediation can be performed simultaneously with engineering and construction work in a ground-up development.
What’s more, some methods allow the remediation to continue even past the opening of a building, provided there is a small space to house the equipment on site. As past projects have shown, all it takes is a room akin to a utility closet or an area the size of a few parking spaces.
So while Abrams is understandably bullish on the technology, he is all the more encouraged to see clients embracing it on their own — or at least giving it a chance.
“And a lot of them ask the right questions: ‘Will the people be safe? Would you be comfortable doing this and making sure that there’s no exposure?’ ” he said. “I had a client a few years ago, and all he kept repeating was: ‘When the ribbon-cutting comes, I want to tell everybody that this place is safe.’ ”
Langan’s focus on in-situ remediation is rooted in science and technology, providing what it sees as a leg up on other firms when combined with its engineering practice.
The company is now leveraging those assets in a major way, using both in support of clients that are redeveloping landfills. As Stew Abrams notes, massive dump sites can’t be excavated, so Langan and its team have crafted a system that captures and diverts the gases that inevitably come from below, allowing a developer client to build a platform over the property without worrying about exposure.
“That capability originally grew out of this air sparge (and soil vapor extraction),” Abrams said, referring to a type of remediation in which air is injected into the ground water, causing contaminants to evaporate as a gas that can be captured. “So the models that do this also can do landfill gas.”
At the request of the developer, whose project is on the West Coast, the firm has plans to divert the gases through pipes that run under the streets alongside typical utility infrastructure, allowing the system to be easily accessible for maintenance.
“We needed a really robust model to model all that airflow and figure out how to cost-effectively do that,” he said. “So we actually spent R&D dollars and found a software company that would work with us.
“And we had models already, so all we did was upgrade our models and we handed them to the (client).”