Monitoring the clean-up of a fuel oil spill in 2000 paid off early this year. The pay-back was the recent opening of a file at the Nova Scotia DOE based on records I kept that confirmed the residential property had been cleaned up. I was retained at the time to ensure the remediation conformed to good engineering practice – peer review.
(By contrast, the benefit from peer review in civil litigation - quality control of the thoroughness and objectivity of the forensic investigation - is immediate, rather than years later. Refs 1, 2 and 3)
A DOE file on a residential property is normally opened after fuel oil spills and closed on receipt of a report that the property has been cleaned up. It was missing in DOE’s files as the property owner – my client 17 years ago – learned in anticipation of selling his property. Buyers and sellers both want assurance that a property is clean and that comes from DOE’s files.
My client asked and I confirmed that I had a copy in my files of the final report by the engineering firm who did the remediation plus all my field notes and photographs taken during my work.
Why the usual file was missing 17 years later is not so important to my story – except to draw attention to the worth of peer review.
The story began in early 1999 when my client smelled oil in his home. Investigation by a consulting engineering firm at his neighbour’s property uphill found that a 200 gallon furnace oil tank had leaked an unknown quantity of fuel oil.
The firm supervised the remediation of the property. This involved locating and excavating the contaminated soil and removing it from the property. Some soil was also excavated from my client’s property.
My client, a retired professional engineer, wasn’t so happy with the firm’s recommendations for remediating his property. At his request, the insurance company retained another consulting engineering firm to do an independent assessment – in a sense, the start of the peer review process. This was done and their assessment was accepted. The second firm then went on to direct remediation of my client’s property.
My client was still uneasy because of the two sets of consulting firms and clean up operations on adjoining residential properties. He retained me to monitor everything that took place on his property.
Remediation of fuel oil spills is fairly simple in most cases in the Atlantic provinces relying as it does on the scientific method and basic engineering. It just looks difficult because it’s messy. Remediation involves:
- Learning the location of the oil or where it might have drained,
- Sampling and testing the soil and ground water for oil at those locations,
- Removing soil that has too much oil by acceptable standards, and,
- Replacing the contaminated soil with clean soil.
Possible locations are identified by:
- Characterizing the drainage pathways of the subsurface soil - the medium that the oil will flow across and through – often, simply contouring the surface of the ground, and,
- Also determining how foundations are constructed on a site that might be affected by soil that has too much oil.
An analogy: Spill water on your house floor, and in mopping it up you look where some of it has drained because you know the floor is almost level, but not quite - the character of floors. And you clean it up because the floor might be damaged by the water if it’s not.
Peer review is checking that something has been done to an acceptable standard. We often associate it with review of a report – check that it’s well written and that the data has been analysed according to scientific principles. It can involve confirming that the forensic investigation was carried out to an acceptable standard and the data is reliable. Peer review can also mean checking that something is being done properly as it’s being done – the situation at my client’s properly.
“Hot tubbing” might be thought of as a form of mutual peer review – experts from different parties in a civil litigation case gather round in a meeting and review each other’s report. It’s increasingly accepted as a case-expediting and cost management technique. (Ref. 4)
In my case in 2000 I was on site full time to note what was done and that it conformed to good practice, to independently measure and photograph the clean-up as it progressed, attend site meetings and report daily to my client.
In general, the work was done very well, and good records kept that saved the day 17 years later. There was one issue about the need to construct a groundwater monitoring well - a way of checking for oil in groundwater over time, oil that we don’t want. This resulted in independent investigations, reports and opinions – including my own. There’s always a few issues that are resolved by experienced engineers talking.
Peer review cost my client money. But it would have cost him an awful lot more money if he tried to sell his house and the word on the street was of an oil spill on the property and no records were available that it was cleaned up properly.
It’s not too much different in civil litigation. A cost up front for peer review of a forensic investigation, or a much greater cost later when rebuttal of an inadequate investigation and a poorly written expert’s report is turned into a nightmare. (Refs 3 and 5)
- Peer review in forensic engineering and civil litigation. Posted November 26, 2013
- Peer reviewing an expert’s report ensures the justice system gets what it needs. Posted January 15, 2016
- Peer review costs can be controlled. Posted January 22, 2016
- Biased experts cured with a soak in the “hot tub”. Posted January 31, 2017.
- Mangraviti, Jr., Babitsky, Steven and Donovan, Nadine Nasser, How to Write an Expert Witness Report, the Preface, SEAK, Inc, 2014