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A water well in the ground
January 6, 2023
January 6, 2023

Dramatically accelerating hazardous waste site cleanups

For the first 26 years of the Water Quality Assurance Revolving Fund—a state-level version of the federal Superfund program that identifies and mitigates groundwater contamination—dozens of sites were identified as hazardous, but not a single one was remediated and delisted.

The sites, often old drycleaners that hadn’t properly managed their waste, were known to be contributing vapors, volatile organic compounds and groundwater contaminants such as trichloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene. 

Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) staff were working through the proper investigations, feasibility studies and remedy proposals to address these sites, yet each step of the process could take up to a decade. And because the work wasn’t progressing, new sites were also not being listed.

Starting in 2013, ADEQ used a series of continuous improvement events to explore improvements at every step of the WQARF process. The first problem-solving event centered around the remedial investigation phase, which previously had no documented, standardized processes. 

“We thought it was important to deep dive into our processes and focus on the mission. If it doesn’t benefit the mission, our thought was that we’ve got to get it out of our process,” said Director of the Waste Programs Division Laura Malone.

The continuous improvement events resulted in more parallel processing to remediate and delist sites. The team established communication plans for reaching out to property owners up front, established milestone meetings, created checklists for internal consistency and wrote rubrics for working with contractors. They also reorganized the drilling procedures for gathering data on-site to avoid mobilizing rigs multiple times.

“We didn’t have standard work, so we didn’t always know when we were done or what did good look like. We tended to always want more wells or data. We recognized that we don’t need 100% of the data to make some of the decisions,” said Malone. “So we ended up reducing the cost to the state with some of those technical aspects. We worked with the Office of Continuous Improvement folks to accomplish all this.”

As a result, the remedial investigations step in the WQARF process that took 8-10 years before now takes two years. Though there were zero sites delisted from WQARF from 1987 to 2013, in the years since six have been delisted, and nine new sites have been added to the list. The department completed 12 remedial investigations in 2014 alone thanks to continuous improvement work, which means those sites are now in the later phases of remediation and potential delisting.

“We’re seeing the benefits of this continuous improvement work now that so many more projects are through the remedial investigation phase. We’re seeing projects move into the final process and cost recovery,” said Malone. 

One of the last phases of the WQARF process is recovering the remediation cost from the responsible parties; more sites being delisted is not only good for Arizonans’ health but also for recouping the taxpayer money that is spent to do this critical environmental health work.

Currently there are 38 sites in various stages of work in the Arizona Water Quality Assurance Revolving Fund. In 2022 through the fund, ADEQ removed 1,149 pounds of volatile organic compounds and treated 1,555, 455,163 gallons of groundwater.

“Before we took on our continuous improvement work, the pipeline was clogged. Nothing was coming in but also nothing was going out. … We never hope to never find new sites, but if sites are out there, we need to have a process that works well to address them,” said Malone.