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Enviro Influencers Series: An Interview with Brian Kahl

By August 25, 2017January 4th, 2020No Comments

In the latest of our Enviro Influencers series, where we talk to key people who we think are key influencers in the environmental industry, we interviewed Brian Kahl, asking him his thoughts on the industry, technology, and the changes and trends that he sees coming.

“I can envision regulators moving away from the tiered compliance model and issuing self-monitoring permits”

Ambisense: Where will technology have the greatest impact on the environmental industry and why?

Brian Kahl: Within the site assessment and remediation segments of the industry, I can foresee some significant and disruptive impacts from emerging technologies. I believe that the next technology disruption will result from developments in emerging sensor technology, low cost embedded systems, and automated analytical platforms. Combined with pervasive cloud communication, these technologies offer improved capabilities for the collection and dissemination of measurable environmental data.

The key differentiator in this new paradigm is time (temporal relevance). With digitally ordered data that is automatically collected and rapidly accessed, consultants will have improved insights into site conditions and the means to advise clients in near real-time. Automated digital reporting allows for fast communication with all stakeholders and the time-stamped (tagged) data archives promise to improve regulatory compliance and legal documentation.

High density temporally relevant data can reveal new insights about site dynamics and identify surrogate parameters that show a direct correlation with changes in the chemical of concern concentrations. This will lead to large scale monitoring using low cost, standard-state sensors to fill in data gaps, track trends, and minimize analytical costs.

At groundwater sites with petroleum impacts, continuous monitoring of bioremediation activity will yield fresh new insights into the dynamic behaviour of indigenous bacteria within a petroleum plume. For example, an in-situ biosensor is currently being tested that measures and reports electrical signals emitted by microbes actively biodegrading organic compounds under reducing conditions. Continuous tracking of microbial activity and redox conditions can reveal new insights into Natural Source Zone Depletion (NSZD) trends including dynamic relationships with changing dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

Telemetry-enabled sensors are already available for most geochemical parameters and many are in development for aqueous and vapor phase chemical constituents (and chemical suites). Such systems will be used to support low-risk conclusions, direct amendment activities, and document remedial effectiveness. In the field of Vapor Intrusion management, remote analytical platforms have been used to isolate source areas and pin-point intrusion pathways using “cause and effect” exercises in real-time, and demonstrated temporal correlations between indoor VOC concentrations, barometric pressure, and pressure differential.

For gas monitoring applications (like landfills), telemetry-enabled systems are available that offer remote continuous measurements of gas concentrations and flow. As with vapor intrusion dynamics, continuous monitoring of subsurface gases can reveal highly dynamic temporal variation in gas concentrations and flux driven by diurnal changes in barometric pressure, promising new insights about subsurface gas behaviours and improved risk assessment. With sensor automation, vast datasets can automatically update complex site models and using advanced algorithms, modellers can use “bid data” analytics to offer a more accurate understanding of site conditions.

As new reliable sensors continue to be adopted, we will see a decrease in manual sampling and testing at fixed-base laboratories. This reduction in analytical expenditures will free up budget resources for improved monitoring arrays and result in more accurate predictive models that are dynamically updated. Consultants will shift towards a more active, faster-paced approach to site management where client communication will be more frequent and dynamic changes are discussed at the ready. Regulatory decision-makers will begin to require continuous monitoring during in-situ remediation efforts to address plume changes, off-gassing, and potential VI impacts. These monitoring programs will likely require automated threshold alerts for notifying affected stakeholders of exceedances.

Given the current state of interconnectivity offered by the internet and smart devices, I would expect the traditional fixed-based laboratory testing methods to continue to migrate to the location of measurement (job sites) using remote analytical platforms or sensors. Emerging sensor technology will continue to improve and become more affordable to a point where professional focus will be on large temporal datasets rather than unit sample results. As regulators, responsible parties (RPs), and environmental professionals begin to recognize the efficiencies and improved insights offered by high density temporally-relevant spatial data, we can expect increased technology adoption and new product offerings in the marketplace.

Ambisense: Over what timeframe do you think this disruption will occur?

BK: With the current pace of innovation, technology will begin to disrupt over the next 5 years. However, these disruptions will be limited to a few regions and sites since existing regulatory statutes and policies are notoriously slow to change. California has always been a key driver for change in the industry and we are seeing some high-level regulators at the state level in favor of continuous monitoring technologies in the vapor intrusion area to improve risk management.

The US EPA is also an advocate of emerging technology and is driving its adoption at the federal level. Within 10 years, I envision regulatory support will be in place to allow self-monitoring by RPs if transparency is assured by continuous monitoring and digital reporting. We may see this disruption to occur faster in Europe and other regions where regulatory change is more fluid. Once regulatory restrictions support compliance self-monitoring by RPs, the demand for technology will increase resulting in a rapid expansion of available monitoring technologies.

Ambisense: How do you see regulatory regimes changing as new technologies become more prevalent?

BK: The USEPA has been advocating efforts to modernize the regulatory compliance process by encouraging the use of modern and emerging pollution detection and monitoring technologies, timely electronic (digital) reporting, and public transparency measures. Notwithstanding the concerns about transparency, the self-monitoring aspects can be very appealing to business.

I can envision regulators moving away from the tiered compliance model and issuing self-monitoring permits that are structured to allow a facility to build in a time buffer to accommodate operational and liability management. A permit-holder could use real-time monitoring information to support data validation, emergency mitigation response, expert analysis, and reporting review prior to releasing the self-monitoring reports to regulators. With continuous monitoring and data automation, I envision site assessment and remediation to begin to merge into an overlapping effort that is dynamic and continuously optimized.

With self-monitoring permits in place, regulators will likely shift their enforcement focus towards facilities not embracing technology and transparent reporting. Facilities with nothing to hide will agree to electronic monitoring to increase operational control, simplify compliance, lower permitting & reporting costs, and to secure lower insurance premiums. Many RPs will begin to recognize the benefit of proactive environmental transparency using technology which will foster a less adversarial relationship with regulatory agencies.

Ambisense: Do you think technology will reshape incumbent business models or simply change the way existing services are delivered?

BK: I think that both will occur to some degree. Large consulting firms seem to be growing through market diversification and the acquisition of smaller firms. These smaller firms serve as regional hubs to support environmental field services as needed. However, as data collection and reporting becomes more automated, those service components may shift to central offices. Regional operations may reduce professional level staff and increase technician level teams to support sensor/telemetry installations and O&M.

We will also see a growing need for IT skilled workers to support the management of these cloud-based networks. For larger firms, technology is a tool for enhancing their services and since site assessment & remediation is only a small segment of their overall services, the initial adoption of automation will represent merely a shift in the delivery of that service. However, as these firms begin to adopt emerging digital automation technologies for energy, and infrastructure management markets, we will see their overall business models change.

Interestingly, the top 10 environmental firms are all messaging the use of emerging technologies. For example, their websites are touting “sustainable & smart technologies” (CH2M Hill), “smart buildings”, “cloud computing”, “big data analytics”, “automation and IOT” (AECOM), etc. Some firms like Tetratech already offer capabilities for real-time monitoring of rainfall, river levels, sewer flow, and indoor air quality. Arcadis and others offer GIS-based data visualization project portals that support real-time data collaboration with clients.

The mobile connected economy has already disrupted the business world in nearly all segments. I believe that the environmental business model will become increasingly disrupted by growing expectations for technology-enhanced site assessment & remediation services that offer improved insights and data analytics with nearly on-demand timing. Environmental firms will be forced to adopt these monitoring technologies through innovation or partnering.

Despite the consolidation trend of the past decade, small niche firms continuously form to compete for business. Technology will begin to equalize the playing field for these smaller firms but as these firms become adept with emerging technologies, larger firms will continue to acquire them. Looking further out, I envision larger firms competing with expansive proprietary digital platforms that optimize a host of services relating to environmental compliance, resource management, energy and smart infrastructure management. Firms offering the most comprehensive digital platforms will capture and maintain business across many sectors that rely on technology.

Ambisense: What is the coolest piece of tech. you’ve come across in the last 12 months?

BK: I have interacted with several cool monitoring technologies recently that have the potential to impact the industry. The system that has already enlightened the industry to the benefits of temporal-spatial monitoring is definitely the VaporSafeTM service.

VaporSafeTM deploys a telemetry-enabled portable GC platform modified with a multiplexed autosampler to enable automated processing of indoor air (or soil gas) samples from up to 30 locations with the ability to hold calibration for months of continuous monitoring. Long term calibration is ensured by dedicating a sampling port to a NIST-certified gas standard.

Equipped with an Electron Capture Detector (sensor), this system can be configured for near-continuous detection of TCE, PCE, DCE, VC and other common VOCs with detection limits at or below 1 ug/M3. Given the relationship VI concentrations have with pressure dynamics, VaporSafeTMalso includes capabilities for monitoring pressure differential, barometric pressure, and indoor pressure. The system offers three modes of operation, a VOC due diligence screening mode (“Check Mode”), a continuous monitoring mode (“Pinpoint Mode”), and a SCADA support (“Control Mode”).

Deployed with telemetry, customers can receive emailed reports and access a live data portal (Hosted by Groundswell Technologies, Inc.) with automatically-rendered data visualizations. The reporting dashboard offers time-series plots, contouring, time-weighted averaging, automated threshold alerts, and daily status summaries. Data is also accessible via Excel spreadsheets and image captures.

About Brian Kahl

Brian Kahl is a Professional Geologist with over 30 years of experience managing environmental liabilities, assessing environmental impacts, and implementing remedial solutions in the public and private sectors. His areas of expertise include environmental due diligence, site assessment, regulatory consulting, and in-situ remediation. Mr. Kahl’s technology application background includes numerous direct sensing investigations (MIP, UVOST, HPT, and CPT) and large scale in-situ remediation projects using various reagents (ISCO, ISCR, EISB), soil mixing, and mechanical recovery (SVE, GWR, etc.) technologies.

His automation technology background includes numerous deployments of real-time, sensor-based monitoring arrays for remote data acquisition applications for both groundwater and vapor intrusion monitoring applications. Mr. Kahl supports clients with environmental technology strategies at Kahl Associates, a Southern California consulting firm.