By: Casey Vander Ploeg, Senior Policy Analyst, Canada West Foundation
The benefits of urban brownfield development are numerous and significant, breathing new life into old neighbourhoods, increasing local property values and land productivity, and mitigating sprawl. There is also a strong infrastructure connection. Brownfields sit upon an existing network of roads, sidewalks, lighting, water mains, and wastewater lines that is not being fully utilized. Brownfield redevelopment brings that existing infrastructure back on-line, often at a lower cost than building and operating new networks in far-flung suburbs.
But—and there always seems to a “but” when it comes to these things—brownfields often represent a huge environmental risk in the form of contaminated soil. Thus, brownfield redevelopment suffers from a negative public image and the potentially huge costs of cleaning up “dirty dirt.”
Last December in the first “Dealing with ‘Dirty Dirt’” blog, I reported on a company called Ground Effects Environmental Services (GEE) which developed a suite of new technologies to remediate polluted soil, ground water, and even air. But GEE is not alone in working on better ways to treat contamination.
Dr. Steve Siciliano is a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Engineering, specializing in soil sciences. Siciliano is at the centre of a unique partnership with Communities of Tomorrow, Stantec Consulting Ltd., and Mitacs—a national non-profit, working to spur innovation by building partnerships with private companies, government, and academia.
The research partnership is developing a new technology to test soil and measure any contamination or toxicity with the help of the lowly earthworm.
In the lab, Siciliano is mimicking the digestive processes of earthworms to determine the degree of toxicity in soil samples. The SEG (Simulated Earthworm Gut) test is being developed to supplement existing technology in the field, which is time consuming, expensive, and sometimes uses live animal testing.
“The SEG test indicates the relative risk to ecological receptors and reflects soil quality. Soil quality is critical as humans, animals, and ecosystem services are impacted when degradation of soil quality occurs,” said Siciliano in the Innovation Impact Report: Simulated Earthworm Gut. “Quicker and more accurate safety testing reduces costs and speeds up business development.”
As a result of consultation and funding from Communities of Tomorrow, the dollars behind the research have been doubled and three graduate students are now also involved.
The importance of such developments is significant. Soil testing is critical to the practice of risk assessment—determining the liability of landowners for any soil pollution and the potential cost of cleaning it up. It is absolutely critical to brownfield redevelopment.
Siciliano is investigating the effectiveness of the new SEG testing protocol on soils polluted with diesel and other hydrocarbons. It has already been demonstrated to be effective for assessing soils contaminated with metals.
The SEG process is proving to be faster than other types of testing, and can save a company up to 50% of the current cost of soil toxicity testing. As a partner in the effort, Stantec is looking to employ the new technology and expand its risk assessment activities, and Siciliano and the University of Saskatchewan are looking to train students so that more risk assessment can happen locally within Saskatchewan.
Siciliano’s work is a great example of the benefits that accrue from innovation and new technologies. Innovation results in systems and process that are better, faster, and less expensive. That equates to more efficiency and higher productivity. Whenever that happens, resources such as time and money can be employed elsewhere, expanding the total amount of goods and services produced in the economy. That’s investment. That’s productivity. And, that’s how an economy grows.
Dr. Siciliano said it even better.
“Environmental liability should never stop economic growth. It just needs to be a cost associated with doing business. Our job is to reduce that cost so that more business can happen.”
To read the Innovation Impact Report: Simulated Earthworm Gut, click here.