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'Pathways' in Environmental Jargon

A closer look at this seemingly harmless word


The word “pathway” conjures many images, mostly pleasant.  There’s the scenic and idyllic road less traveled, but preferred by Robert Frost.  In biochemistry, a pathway is a series of reactions that turn one thing into another, as in the cellular cuisine produced by photosynthesis.  There’s even the undergraduate degree, which is ostensibly a pathway to success.  

But for an environmental consultant, a pathway is nefarious.  No flagstone paths leading to the gazebo on a summer afternoon.  No wooded passageway to that swimming hole known only to a select few.  Rather, a pathway is a route for an environmental contaminant to cause harm to a receptor.  Think of it as an undesirable link between a damaging element or compound and someone or something that should be avoiding the wrongdoer. 

Let’s begin at the source.  We may have a buried tank once filled with ethyl-methyl death, but whose skin is now reminiscent of Swiss cheese.  We may have a former industrial site, where floor drains carried chromium waste to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind dry well in the back.  Or even an orchard, where worm-free apples were once achieved by generous applications of lead arsenate.  Now, the once industrially or agriculturally useful chemical is in a place where it shouldn’t be.

So what?  Is it an issue?  The answer is of course… it depends.   

If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody is around to hear it, did it make a noise?  That’s the gist of the environmental pathway concept.  If the contamination is stable and in an area where nobody is touching it, ingesting it, or breathing it, maybe no active remediation is required.  If there are no animals biomagnifying the issue, or no drinking water wells intercepting it, maybe we don’t need to do much of anything.   Maybe.

But if pathways to harm are open, the property owner could be on a path to financial burden.

The pathway elimination process begins with the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment.  Here, combining trained-eye site reconnaissance with historical and governmental records review, the environmental consultant may identify recognized environmental conditions (RECs) – environmental red flags. 

To evaluate whether the red flags are indeed threatening, the environmental consultant will complete a Phase II subsurface investigation to collect an initial dataset.  If the data analysis confirms that the RECs hold the potential for harm, a remedial investigation will be required to determine the extents of impact, and to identify pathways. 

If impacted soil, groundwater, and/or soil gas coupled with open pathways are discovered, typically some form or remediation will be required.  Remediation can range from engineering and institutional controls (soil caps and a deed notice, respectively, for example) to active remediation (soil removal and groundwater treatment, for example).  The necessary remedy will depend on the extent of impact, evaluated against open pathways. 

Indeed, a tainted environmental pathway isn’t a yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City.  However, environmental issues are a common thread of property transactions and redevelopment.  Although you may feel like the Scarecrow in Oz when these issues arise, just as with the fictional character, a qualified environmental consultant can help you realize you already have the brain to master the situation.  And then, your project will be on the path to success.