Advancing Groundwater Restoration Through Qualitative Analysis

Investigator(s): Alan Rabideau

Funding Source: National Science Foundation

Duration: September 2013 - August 2016

Abstract: This INSPIRE award is partially funded by the NSF Engineering Directorate (ENG) and the NSF Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE). This project is motivated by the long-standing prevalence of inactive waste sites resistant to the restoration of contaminated soil and groundwater. Recently, the National Research Council (NRC, 2012) identified thousands of complex sites, "complex" referring to a collection of physical, chemical, and regulatory factors that inhibit cleanup. Because the NRC committee was unable to identify potential technological breakthroughs, its report focused on the need for long-term management (LTM) of these sites, which will require many decades of cooperation between regulatory agencies, responsible parties, and host communities. While attention to LTM represents a progressive and positive development in the culture of groundwater restoration (GR), some compelling alternatives to LTM have not been fully evaluated, including: (1) a reinvigorated research agenda to develop cost-effective cleanup technologies, and (2) a paradigm shift from current practices (which emphasize technical analysis of health/cost tradeoffs) to a more holistic decision process informed by local stakeholder values and the core ideals of adaptive management, sustainability, environmental justice, and intergenerational equity. The INSPIRE team brings together scholars from environmental engineering, philosophy, sociology, and oral history to address important questions raised by the proposed shift to LTM: (1) to what extent has inadequate engineering implementation of remedial technologies contributed to failures to achieve cleanup targets (in contrast to the presumed inherent challenges of contaminated sites), (2) has the dominant risk-versus-cost paradigm adequately engaged the environmental values held by practitioners and stakeholders (including sustainability), (3) how has GR practice and policy development been shaped by group identify and differences in core values and beliefs among government regulators, responsible parties, technical professionals, citizens, and academic researchers, and (4) how should the concerns of community residents, who will be most affected by the transition to LTM, be appropriately engaged? Recognizing that the above questions are not easily addressed by disciplinary or "expert panel" research, this three-year INSPIRE project will emphasize the qualitative analysis of recorded audio data (RAD), collecting and analyzing 100-200 hours of RAD from focus groups, workshop dialogues, oral history testimonies, and phone interviews with a diverse community of professional, government, academic and citizen practitioners and stakeholders. Open-ended interviews are a well-established and appropriate vehicle to engage, study, and learn from the local, often undocumented, knowledge of the diverse communities that engage in complex projects such as GR. Using new database tools for thematically mapping anecdotal interviews as meaning-dense RAD, analytic methods such as frame analysis, applied collaboratively by the interdisciplinary team, will support the development of new decision paradigms for more effectively managing GR and complex waste sites. Disseminated results will include journal articles, practitioner-oriented workshops, and new tools to support collaborative scholarship. The project will advance the field of GR by critically examining the pervasive assumption that restoration to health-based levels is technological infeasible for most sites, and by assessing alternative paradigms such as reinvigorated basic research, adaptive management, and/or sustainability analysis. Two doctoral, one MS, and several undergraduate students will receive cutting-edge training in cross-disciplinary research. Furthermore, the experience of collaborative qualitative analysis of RAD data (by the entire research team working together) will constitute a new and potentially transformative model for research that fully integrates science, engineering, ethics, and policy.

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