08 Aug “Life is Like a Beach…”
Vacations give us a chance to relax, have some fun, and regenerate. They may also offer some time to reflect and gain perspective. For me, that time comes when sitting on the beach. My first thoughts inevitably go to my college days, where I studied the processes that shape the face of the Earth, in general, and the coastlines, in specific. Tidal cycles, storms, wind, and sometimes even glaciers have an effect on the landscape. My thoughts then drift to the ever-changing nature of the beach. Coastlines are dynamic systems; constantly being altered. To the trained eye, the recent and not-so-recent histories are on display. Gravel can be seen in the high energy areas where the waves break and plunge onto the shore. Moving inland we find sand deposited by the actions of wave run-up; coarse near the water’s edge and becoming finer toward the dune line. If we were to dig down in the sand, we would see fine layers in the excavation wall. Each layer represents a wave coming in and leaving behind a small quantity of sand. Layer by layer, the beach builds out on calm summer days such as this. If we continue to move toward the land, we will reach dunes made of fine sand. This was deposited, not by water, but by wind. We may also see some reddish-brown magnetite/garnet sand, whose smaller and denser grains behave the same as the lighter-colored silica sand. Along our journey from the water’s edge to the dune, we may have encountered a small escarpment; a small seaward-facing “cliff” just a few inches to a foot or two high. The escarpment marks where the beach had eroded during the last storm. Erosion occurs during the storms, but is followed by renewal on the calmer days. I can’t help but draw the parallel that I, too, am being renewed on this fine summer day. Over the long-term, the land gradually erodes and the shoreline moves ever inward. Eventually, this spot will be in the ocean. Time marches on for beaches, just as for people.
The forces of nature are constantly reshaping the face of the Earth everywhere, although it may not be as obvious as on the shoreline. Moving air and water and ice wear down rock and soil in some areas, and create new land in others. Tectonic forces gradually create mountains and swallow the seafloors. Continents are rearranged and cities can shake. Our world is dynamic.
At this point you’re probably thinking “This little flight of fancy is nice, but what’s it got to do with environmental condition of my property?” I’m glad you asked. When evaluating a property, we must consider the long-term effects of pollution, not just what we see at this moment. Over time, pollutants in soil may leach out and migrate to groundwater. From there, they may be carried to drinking water wells or to nearby streams and lakes. Wind can also carry polluted soil to nearby properties, exposing unsuspecting workers and residents over time. The chemicals themselves change over time due to normal chemical and biological action. Chlorinated solvents like Tetrachloroethylene and Trichloroethylene can break down to form the more toxic and more mobile Vinyl Chloride. We must also consider how operations at the Site, over time, may have impacted the environmental quality of the property. A few drops of oil on the ground is not a big deal. A few drops of oil on the ground every day for twenty years or fifty years may have a significant impact on the environment.
Environmental investigations of commercial and industrial properties must account for the processes and forces acting over time. This includes the gradual accumulation of contaminants in the past, and the potential migration and impact of contaminants in the future. Just as a beach is built grain by grain over time, the effects of pollution can gradually effect humans and the environment for years or decades. The good news is that we can prevent any negative effects and create a safer world for our children and grandchildren.