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Long-term risk groundwater economic study: exploring the costs of institutional controls

Wickes Manufacturing TCE groundwater plume in Antrim County.As part of National Groundwater Awareness Week, today's MI Environment story by Jeremiah Asher, of Michigan State University's Institute for Water Research, is from the recently released 2021 State of the Great Lakes report.

Balancing the need for sustainable economic development with protection of Michigan's vital groundwater resources is an important public policy question. With funding from the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy's (EGLE) Office of the Great Lakes, Michigan State University's Institute for Water Research (MSU-IWR), MSU Extension's Center for Economic Analysis (MSUE-CEA) and the nonprofit group FLOW (For Love of Water) have started a study to determine the economic impact of remedies for groundwater contamination that limit human exposure rather than removing all contaminants.

Under state policies in place since 1995, when a liable party or EGLE is faced with the decision on how to select an appropriate remedy for contaminated groundwater, they may rely on institutional controls (ICs). These can provide an easier and, at least initially, more affordable response than approaches such as extraction and treatment of contaminated groundwater. These ICs are usually either deed restrictions or municipal ordinances. They are often used for brownfield redevelopment, an important priority for communities.

But leaving the contamination in place and simply restricting access to the affected groundwater can have long-term impacts that are difficult to account for and have been overlooked at times in the initial remedy selection process. These impacts may include lost opportunities for future development when access to groundwater is restricted, decreased real estate values and unanticipated human health or environmental risks.

With funding from EGLE, researchers from MSU-IWR, MSUE-CEA and FLOW will study the long-term costs of implementing institutional controls as a groundwater contamination response in Michigan.

The study will identify eight to 12 case sites in which an IC for groundwater was used in Michigan and calculate the cumulative cost of that choice at each site, including costs associated with monitoring, wildlife impacts, property value, public health and recreational loss, among others. In estimating those costs, the study will engage stakeholders to help identify relevant datasets, records and cost considerations. Where necessary, the project team will develop groundwater models to simulate long-term contaminant spread. Using the insights gained from this analysis, the project team will develop a recommended framework to guide future decision-making for remedies at sites with groundwater contamination. The framework will supplement existing remedial action plans used by the State of Michigan's cleanup programs, incorporate the economic model and policy implications of long-term use of ICs, and evaluate the feasibility of alternative remediation actions.

A multi-disciplinary team of economists, policy analysts and water scientists will carry out this project. Assisting will be an advisory committee with expertise in groundwater management, stakeholder engagement, groundwater modeling and policy to provide guidance on the project's design and progress. EGLE will be an active partner, helping identify priority case study sites, facilitating access to state databases for environmental management and providing input on the development of the decision framework.

The project's primary outcome will be advice to EGLE on economic impacts that should be considered in the difficult decisions that need to be made about the long-term costs and effectiveness of groundwater contamination remedies. The project will also culminate in recommendations for policy and program changes.

The results of the project will help state and local decision-makers better understand the effects of current management strategies for contaminated groundwater and inform and improve decision-making about future uses of institutional controls. Funding for this project is provided by EGLE's Office of the Great Lakes through the Michigan Great Lakes Protection Fund.

Caption: Wickes Manufacturing TCE groundwater plume in Antrim County.

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