What Does an Environmental Assessor Do?

Environmental Scientists or Consultants are employed by either a private company or a government authority to undertake a range of jobs within an environmental assessment. Some of the jobs environmental scientists, environmental consultants and environmental consulting firms carry out include:

Pre-purchase Inspection of a Site

In some instances, an organisation interested in purchasing a site may approach an environmental consultant to check for pollution prior to purchase.

In Australia, for example, there is legislation that dictates that “the person polluting a site is responsible for cleaning it up”. If a person wants to buy a particular block of land, they need to know that is clean of known contamination. If the site is contaminated, the purchaser may want to know what the contaminants are as well as an estimate of how much it will cost to decontaminate the site. Alternatively, the purchaser may offer to buy the land “as is” for a lower price, for example, $6.5 million for a piece of contaminated land, or for $10 million for land that has already been decontaminated. The lower price for the site “as is” will allow the purchaser to use the rest of their funds to clean the site. They are then taking the risk that it may have more contamination than expected.

One method of determining what pollution is likely to be present on the land is to look at past photos (especially aerial ones). This will tell you when the land was cleared and developed. The structures shown often give a good indication of what the block was previously used for.  For example, a shed with hard-stand area outside with a scattering of cars on the hard-stand would indicated that the area was used for car maintenance and repairs and so the expected pollution might include hydrocarbons such as petrol (with or without lead depending on how long ago the area was used), grease and oil. 

Soil samples could then be taken where the oil stains were observed and an analysis requested for “oil and grease”, and “aromatic hydrocarbons”.  It is important for scientists to be specific when requesting laboratory tests, rather than just requesting a test of “samples for pollution”. Laboratories will ask which tests (of the approximately 45 000 tests available) are needed, and how many tests can they invoice for? Some laboratories will be registered to carry out tests x, y and z, but not a, b and c.  Therefore, scientists may need to seek testing from more than one laboratory.

Background Data
This type of investigation can be for a range of reasons including the following:

Noise Levels

It is normal for certain regulatory authorities (such as the Environmental Protection Agency in Australia) to have as a condition of an environmental license that the company needs to contain the noise levels to “background noise level plus 5dB(A)” or something similar. So the scientist will need to know what the background level is for each specified bracket of time during the day (e.g. 7am to 10pm; 10pm to 7am) for each specific day (e.g. Monday to Friday; Saturday; Sunday and holidays). The investigation would also identify the closest affected receiving area. For example, a school would be seen to be a very sensitive receiving area whereas a factory would be seen to be a rather insensitive receiving area.

Light Pollution
The investigation may include investigations into light pollution. For example, will houses nearby be affected by light from trucks making deliveries at 2am every weekday?  Will floodlighting from the proposed development affect local residents?  If the level of light is found to be excessive, then light blocking barriers may need to be erected.  Information of this nature may be needed by planning authorities prior to approval being given.  Approval may be quicker where a proponent has indicated that light blocking screens will be a part of the development.

As an example, a proposal may be for a school to be built. The local planning authority may want to know what the traffic level is at present, and what the expected extra traffic will be. The scientist may have to give this traffic information for specific time slots, such as during the school drop-off and pick-up times. In many countries, where there are proposed changes to the classification of a block of land, a public notice may be issued. This allows members of the public to make comments about the proposed changes.

Flora and Fauna Surveys
In many countries, when a developer proposes to make changes to a site, they will need to have an environmental consultant conduct a survey of the site to determine what flora and fauna area present.  In particular, the consultant may look for ecologically significant features such as rare or endangered species, or habitat features such as hollow logs used by fauna. The consultant may advise of ways to reduce the impacts of a development on a site, and they may make suggestions for rehabilitation. For example, if a shopping centre is proposed for a certain site, the environmental consultant may recommend that only certain trees may be cut down, and that a certain number of trees be replanted in the area to replace these. The consultant may also recommend that wildlife be captured and moved to another location.

Open Space Management Plans
Open space is recognised by many local government bodies as being beneficial to human health and to the overall design of urban areas. Many local government bodies will set aside certain areas as open space. These might include picnic areas, suburban parks, children’s playgrounds and the like. Where such an open space is proposed, an environmental company may be called in to recommend the best way to manage the open space. Management advice might include the planting of low shrubs to preserve the view; the removal of undesirable, unsafe or weed species and the provision of bins.
Compliance with Specific License Conditions

When an environmental license is issued, there may be specific conditions that need to be observed. For example, the license may stipulate that “it is not permitted to emit more than the following types of particulates from the stack”. In such a case, the environmental consultant would visit the site and conduct stack tests, taking stack samples for analysis to check that the client is complying with the license conditions.  Where samples show that a client is not complying with the requirements, the consultant may advise the client as to how the pollution level can be reduced to the required level.

Detection of Pollutants
Sometimes a complaint may be received by a regulatory authority and a subsequent investigation will be carried out. A complaint might be as simple as a member of the public saying “we are worried about the unpleasant smell coming from the horse stables across the road.” An environmental consultant may then be employed to find out what the odour is; when it occurs and how it is offensive. If the complaint is found to be justified under the regulations of that particular country, then the offender may be asked to rectify the problem. The consultant may need to determine what is causing the odour and to advise the client on how to overcome the problem. Odour complaints can be difficult to investigate, as what is offensive to one person may be acceptable to someone else.  One method of deciding what is offensive is to use dilutions of the odour that are then systematically smelled by “specific nose” persons in a laboratory. This requires access to laboratory facilities.

Remediation of a Polluted Site
A consultant may be asked to find out what methods can be used to decontaminate a specific site. When deciding on a decontamination method, there may be a number of options that the consultant needs to consider. For example, to remove diesel from a site, the options might be:

  • Use bacteria and leave the site for six weeks
  •  Remove the polluted soil and take it to a land fill site (fast but expensive)
  • A combination of both methods (a compromise on time and cost)

Determination of plants that will tolerate pollutants
A consultant may be requested to determine what type of plants will grow in a polluted area. The pollution may be heavy metals such as lead, and lead tolerant plants will be needed in the area. For example, when certain types of mining have occurred in a site, large dumps of tailings may be left behind. These tailings are the “leftovers” of mining and they may contain high levels of lead, but not at a level high enough to make extraction economically viable. Thus, the tailings are left behind, and a consultant is brought in to provide advice on remediation. Plants may be used to remediate the site, as they actually take up the metal and can then be harvested and removed from the site. This is only one method of remediation.

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