The Role of Diverse Data: Reflections from a Multidisciplinary ES Career

The Role of Diverse Data: Reflections from a Multidisciplinary ES Career image
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After decades of experience in environmental science, at least one thing remains clear: that diverse, well-integrated data is at the heart of real change. From observations early in my career to my work with organizations connecting sustainability performance to business goals, I’ve seen firsthand the role that data plays in fueling informed, strategic action—and what we can achieve when we connect the dots. 

First steps in environmental science 

In the 1980s, environmental science (ES) and engineering were rapidly growing in the U.S., spurned by the enactments of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the Comprehensive Environmental Recovery Compensation Act (CERCLA). 

At the time, I was a young hydrogeologist working at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a chemical weapons plant considered to be one of the most contaminated places on earth. I was initially focused on learning and applying processes for constructing, developing, and sampling groundwater wells used to investigate the nature and extent of contaminants in groundwater. I also learned that we needed to understand the natural and industrial structures and processes associated with each facility to fully understand the impacts on and from groundwater.    

I remember attending a meeting where a host of attorneys reported on another CERCLA cleanup task—review of Applicable or Relevant and Appropriate Regulations (ARARS). I was surprised at this task’s rigor to identify Federal and State regulations beyond CERCLA that would be relevant to the Site cleanup, such as the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Toxic Substances and Control Act (TSCA), the Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), the Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA), and a myriad of other laws involving cultural resources, threatened and endangered species, hazardous materials transportation, petroleum and pesticides, landfills and waste disposal, Tribal relations, environmental justice, aesthetics, dam safety, floodplains, wetlands, historic preservation, a wide range of permits, and water law. 

It all seemed a bit overwhelming at this early stage of my career, so I kept my focus on “wet dirt.” 

Integrated disciplines in action 

With this focus, my hydrogeology tool set grew to include the concepts of hydraulic conductivity, radius of influence, transmissivity, storativity, hydrostratigraphy, non-uniform saturation and preferential flow, contaminant fate and transport, groundwater-surface water interaction, exposure pathways, and more. Collectively, these concepts helped us characterize potential risk to humans and the environment. 

We met with laypeople to explain these mostly invisible phenomena, their associated potential impacts, and how we intended to remediate to protect and, where possible, advance their interests. To do this, we had to derive meaning from thousands of pages of data by making it visible, contextual, comparable, and digestible. Left in tabular form, the data would have remained relatively meaningless to us and them, as well as the regulators. 

A few years later, I had the opportunity to lead an environmental program for one of the largest employers in the country. In addition to the conventional environmental media of land, water, air, and biota, this program also addressed flows of two key resources: energy and material. 

Then a project for the U.S. Department of Defense used geographic information system (GIS) technology to show relationships between environmental media and three additional key-resource flows: information, personnel, and money. Much like the radar on a plane helps pilots understand flight conditions by integrating diverse sets of data (e.g., windspeed, altitude, air traffic, thunderstorms, land elevation, etc.) in a coherent spatial context, this program helped leadership accelerate and enhance understanding of key stakeholder positions, resource flows, and the environmental, social, and engineered systems that influence business conditions and outcomes.  

Intersecting experience, diversity, and data 

This aggregation, translation, and simplification of data is at the crux of our value and what we can provide. I’m excited that at the very foundation of ADEC Innovations’ mission to co-create innovative solutions and quality services, we know that the key to connecting sustainability and resilience initiatives with profitability, performance, and key business metrics is comprehensive, well-understood, and well-integrated data. As part of this unique pure-play ESG business model, FCS has a wealth of data across diverse disciplines, coupled with decades of visualization expertise and a comprehensive range of services, to offer our clients unique value in the ESG space.  

What does this mean for our Professional Services moving forward? 

First, it means that internally there is a place for each of our individual and collective skills, interests, and values to flourish. Think about how a successful medical organization seeks to gain leading-edge research and data across orthopedics, dermatology, neurobiology, cardiology, general healthcare, etc., to fully understand how these separate systems work together and affect each other. Similarly, we need to leverage and grow our individual and combined expertise across cultural resources, wastewater management, ESG indices disclosure and reporting, air quality and GHG management, TMAs, scope 1, 2, and 3 management, and more, connecting our daily tasks across preconceived boundaries to enhance our understanding of how each of our disciplines is currently and potentially integrated.  

And, externally, just as that hypothetical medical organization provides comprehensive expertise to its patients, imagine the increased value we can provide clients through various combinations of our remediation, due diligence, NEPA, CEQA, supply chain, visualization, programming, data management, and other offerings.  

Now, decades into my environmental science career, I’m revisiting that ARAR meeting, looking beyond the “wet dirt,” and embracing with more experience the critical need to overlay any and all relevant and available data to empower organizations to make informed decisions. Harnessing our collective expertise and data, the possibilities for creating resiliency and transforming risk into positive impact and value are limitless. 

Stay tuned for my next post, which will pose the question of whether we are truly practicing environmental science or system science.  

FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS), an ADEC Innovation, comprises more than 100 individuals offering due diligence, technical analysis, planning, environmental compliance, permitting, and mitigation/monitoring services for both public and private projects. FCS has more than 30 years of experience navigating the complexities of CEQA and securing project approvals. Our technical and legal teams are ready to provide assistance and guidance in moving your project forward. Contact us for a free consultation to learn more about how we can help with your specific project requirements.

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In an ever-changing regulatory and sustainability environment, FCS understands the challenges you face. Our highly qualified environmental specialists, energy management consultants, and technical experts deliver integrated, industry-specific solutions that move your project forward—so that you can focus on what matters.