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Old Problem, New Solution

Hey there, ecoREADERS! I know it’s been a little while since we’ve had one of these blog posts, and your patience and continued following of us, our posts, and our journey is appreciated beyond words. That being said, this post is going to be our last…

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UNTIL – that is – the upcoming overhaul of our blog is completed! “What is this overhaul,” you ask, “and what does it mean?” Well, kind reader, just as Gandalf told a concerned Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of his great adventure, the answer will come in due time. Stay tuned. Now, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled program.

Just this past June, our team was honored and (I cannot stress this enough) extremely pleased to announce our upcoming partnership and 2-year Pilot Program with the award-winning Port of San Diego! This was a big one for us, folks, for a handful of big reasons. The first being that ecoSPEARS was selected as a one-of-one cohort for the Port’s Blue Economy Incubator program. This initiative through the Port of San Diego encourages and inspires the adoption of new and innovative technology to improve the quality of aquaculture, economy, and community in and around San Diego Bay. The second reason is that, when our namesake SPEARS technology was proposed to the Board of Port Commissioners, the Board voted to approve the proposal by unanimous vote! Lastly, because it proves to us and the United States’ remediation industry as a whole that the adoption of new and innovative technologies by established industry is not impossible – quite the opposite, in this case.

This announcement was big news not only for us but also for the Port of San Diego, as well as other Ports like it throughout the United States and North America. If you haven’t already, go ahead and take a gander at this blog post from last summer that talks about the early colonization of the US. For those that have already read the post, you’ll remember how we mentioned that the industrial boom of the 1800s carrying into the early-20th-century turned many coastal settlements and towns into titanic centers of manufacturing and production. These epicenters of civilization utilized water first and foremost as a means of transportation. As populations grew, the number of boats and ships coming into and out of port grew exponentially, and so did the number of tradespeople they brought with them. As the Industrial Revolution reached America’s shores, they want and need for mechanical advancement increased at break-need speeds. Where better for this advancement to begin than the now-heavily populated coastal cities and port towns that required an expanse in jobs and infrastructure to account for the expanse in population?

Port of New Orleans, circa 1844 (source:

From the 1800s into the 1900s, as populations, technological advancements, and the ever-increasing need for updated infrastructure, employment, and resources continued to grow, ports remained a constant hub of commerce, meeting, and trade. It was where sailors from other territories and countries brought news from oversees, where craftspeople bartered for wares, where fishermen sold their daily catches, and – as the great wars of the 20th-century shook the world – where military naval might was spearheaded, showcased, and stationed.

As the world settled down from the chaos of World Wars I & II, new perceived threats to modern civilization sprouted on the far side of the world with the rise of communism. Continued military advancements, coupled with the research and development of more modern weapons and machines, saw manufacturing companies that produced the materials necessary for these developments pop up one by one at ports throughout the American continents, particularly the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines. The growing demand for lighter and sturdier metals to be used in vehicles, armor, weapons, and ammunitions amongst other things caused these manufacturers to work around the clock, refining their processes to ensure the continued and future protection of their homeland from the potential threat of war, or – heaven forbid – invasion. The ramping-up of these productions, in turn, ramped up the production of waste run-off and excess carbon emissions from the maritime transport of various goods and cargo around the world, all in a time when the long-lasting effects of environmental and maritime pollution were not fully (if at all) understood.

Decades later, we now have the environmental wherewithal and technology at our disposal to effectively draw connections between increased ship transportation and manufacturing activities at ports around the world, to decreased air quality and increases in environmental contamination localized to communities in and around these ports. A 2017 European study found that luxury cruise ships were responsible for emitting roughly two-to-five times as many carcinogenic emissions at major European port cities than cars in those cities. In early 2015, a brief shutdown of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach left more than two-dozen cargo ships anchored offshore, burning fuel and releasing carbon emissions while they waited to be allowed entry. These 30 or so ships, running idly off California’s southern coast, still accounted for about 10% of smog-forming emissions in Southern California in early 2015.

In the United States, there are more than 1,300 locations across the country currently listed as a Superfund site that has not yet been deemed “clean” by EPA. Looking at the map below, we can see that a majority of these sites are located along the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines of the United States. Tampa, one of the busiest ports in the southeast, houses 8 Superfund sites, and the state of New Jersey contains a whopping 112 Superfund sites alone – nearly 10% of all Superfund sites in the country!

Source: US EPA

Remember that this is only counting currently listed Superfund sites in the United States, not Brownfields, RCRA, or other hazardous waste sites outside of the Superfund clarification.

“Well, Sam, this is a lot of great information,” you say,” “but what does it have to do with anything relating to the things you mentioned at the beginning of this post?”

Well, reader, I’m glad you asked. To make a long answer short, it has everything to do with our announcement for a pilot program with the Port of San Diego. You see, history shows us that while environmental contamination is not limited to ports, harbors, marinas and the like, a vast proportion of hazardous waste – be it found in air quality, soils, or sediments – is still found at areas such as these. While Superfund sites are assessed and cleaned up each year, the following chart from the American Cancer Society shows that in 2016, only one Superfund site out of 1,300+ was cleaned up while 15 others were added to the list.

Source: C&EN, Volume 95 Issue 14

If so many of these high-priority sites are located in or around ports and harbors and the like, with a dozen or more being added each year with so few others being cleaned, this begs the question of “why”? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere hidden between the lines of community, regulatory authority, and remedial action: if a better technology existed which was able to permanently remediate legacy contamination from impacted areas in these ports, harbors, marinas, and other coastal areas with higher populations and increased infrastructure, which was also able to surgically isolate and remove the contamination at its source without the need for disrupting local commerce or everyday operations, wouldn’t more of these sites be able to be readily addressed and deemed clean?

In short, reader, what we’re saying is that old adage our team of ecoHACKERS falls back on day-by-day: “modern problems require modern solutions.”

Imagine this: you are the victim of a tragic accident, causing you to be rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation. As you’re being wheeled into the operating room, the surgeon places a leather strap over your face and says, “bite down, this is going to hurt.” You would probably respond with something along the lines of, “hey doc’, what are you thinking? Load me up with anesthetic and knock me out!” Hospitals, doctors, and operations are scary enough to many as they are. Imagine how many times over that fear would increase if modern medical hospitals and doctors still used methods and tools that are now outdated by technological advancements.

Perhaps, imagine a less graphic scenario: you are taking a Red-Eye flight to an out-of-town business meeting. You estimated that allowing for enough time between the point where your plane lands and you arrive at the meeting, you have just about 3 hours. The meeting is happening about an hour away from the airport, so you just might have enough time to check-in to your hotel room and grab a quick coffee to go. You land, gather your luggage, and head outside to meet your Uber driver. But instead of a car pulling up to meet you, it’s a two-horse carriage. You would think this was some kind of practical prank being played on you, possibly scan the environment for hidden cameras, or text your coworkers a “haha very funny” only to receive a “???” in return. Would you accept this alternative solution in place of something that you know; 1) exists, 2) is currently available to the market, and 3) is more efficient than what is currently in front of you? If your answer was anything but “absolutely not,” then maybe you should have done more research before trying to hail a taxi in Amish Country.

Way more carbon-friendly than a Chevy! (source:

The point being made here is this: why would any industry, market, or any suppliers or customers within that market or industry continue using outdated means to solve a modern problem? The only reasonable answer is “because nothing better currently exists to solve the problem.” This is Entrepreneurship 101: identify a specific problem facing businesses and/or customers in a specific industry, analyze why that problem still exists today, and begin developing a better, more modern solution to fix the problem.

The same holds true for the Environmental Remediation Industry. While many of the problems facing the industry did not begin in modern times, they have persisted into modern times, thus classifying them as “modern problems.” Yet, when it comes to legacy contamination in and around major ports, harbors, and the like, many industry players are left scratching their heads at how to best go about addressing, evaluating, and resolving such complex issues with the tools currently available in their toolbox.

How can we use a clam-shell dredge unit on a PCB hotspot from sediment located underneath a major fueling station without compromising the surrounding infrastructure, or disrupting regular commerce to the port that normally comes through that fueling station?

Why would we dig up thousands of tons of contaminated sediment from the middle of a harbor famous for its tourism, ship it hundreds of miles in hundreds or thousands of dump trucks to an incinerator – creating thousands of tons of carbon emissions in the process, then use the same number of trucks to ship back thousands of tons of fresh sediment to fill in the hole we made in the first place before patting ourselves on the back for “cleaning up the environment”?

What good reason is there to place a cap of granulated-activated carbon (GAC) over a man-made mound of dirt impacted with hazardous levels of dioxins, in the middle of the country’s most historically active area for Category 3+ Hurricanes, if we know that it will only take one storm bringing enough flooding with it to cause our “solution” to fail?

Houston’s Barker Reservoir flooding from Hurricane Harvey. (source: Brett Coomer & Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle)

Technology will always outpace legislation, sure. It is not always easy – or in some cases even possible – for our laws and regulations to keep up with advances in technology. This does not mean advances in technology will or should cease, but as innovations are made every day, so too are the sustainable means by which those innovations are made, and it is the responsibility of innovators and regulators alike to adopt or find modern solutions to modern problems. To quote Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerMedia, “using regulation as an excuse to not innovate is not a sustainable strategy.”

If a better solution for a modern problem is made available to address a specific market need, it is the responsibility of that market to vet the solution as a preferred alternative to contemporary means. It is not the market’s responsibility to adopt the solution with full initial buy-in, but to at least analyze, evaluate, and trial it. This is why the ecoSPEARS partnership and pilot program with Port of San Diego is such a big deal: it shows us, the Port, its community and partners, as well as the industry as a whole that innovation and sustainability are not only possible but that it’s already happening!

No, SPEARS will not be a viable solution for every contamination problem in every port, but how would we know it would even be a solution for one if some were not willing to evaluate, analyze, and trial it? If each major port throughout the United States possessed an initiative similar to San Diego’s Blue Economy Incubator to vet innovative, cost-effective and sustainable technologies, it’s possible that lingering legacy contamination issues in our nation’s ports would – slowly, but as it momentum snowballed – become just that: legacy contamination.

Perhaps Port of San Diego commissioner Rafael Castellanos put it best when he said, “just like the Santa Clarita Valley came to be known as the Silicone Valley, one day the San Diego Bay will be called the blue-technology bay.”