Report of AGS Chairman’s visit to ASFE Conference

Article Business Practice Contaminated Land Loss Prevention Senate by

At the invitation of the President of ASFE, I attended the ASFE Autumn Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. The conference was held over two days (Friday and Saturday) with Board committee meetings held on Thursday and Sunday. The whole event was very well organised, extremely sociable, informative and thought provoking. I gave a presentation to the Conference of the current initiatives and concerns of the AGS which was well received.

Perhaps most surprising to me was just how many of the issues of concern to ASFE were common to the AGS. In particular this was illustrated by concerns over the trend in the Client community to expect “perfection” from their geotechnical/ geo-environmental advisors. Such Clients then appear hold reasonable (?!) expectations of recovering any financial over-runs from their advisors even if such costs have not resulted from any negligence by that advisor. ASFE have just published a Handbook ‘Limitation of Liability’ which although specifically related to the US experience, also provides much useful information for the UK practitioner. A copy has been given to the AGS Loss Prevention Group who will be looking to see how best to utilise this tool in the UK market. [You can see the ASFE publication list and order copies on www.asfe.org].

Interestingly, and contrary to what I had anticipated, the levels of liability agreed by parties in the US are far lower than those currently being accepted here in the UK. For example, many ASFE members are able to limit their liability to the level of fee or to levels as low as $50,000.

Training is also an issue which is concerning the industry on both sides of the Atlantic. The availability, consistency and quality of training for members and employees is recognised as being critical in ensuring the continuing professional development of the industry. To its credit ASFE has over 50 training presentations (‘brown bag talks’) on its web site for use by its members. I believe that the AGS now needs to give further consideration to its role in the provision of training to the industry.

Geo-environmental aspects are assuming an increasing importance for both ASFE and AGS members. In the US geo-environmental work is now more important than geotechnical for the majority of ASFE members. This is reflected in moves in the US to create an “Institute of Brownfield Professionals”. This proposal essentially mirrors the SiLC [Specialists in Land Contamination] registration scheme which has been set up in the UK with the active support / participation of the AGS. Also of current concern to ASFE have been recent developments at the Environmental Participation Agency and the specification of a Standard – which defines the amount of site investigation needed on Brownfield sites. The Standard refers to only a simple option [the ASTM – All Appropriate Inquiry (AAI)]. ASFE has concerns that this signals movement at the EPA from their previous position of preferring ‘performance based standards’ to one of the ‘prescriptive standards’. Again, this has parallels in the UK and it will be important for the AGS to monitor the implementation of the Model Procedures for the Management of Contaminated Land (CLR11) by the various regulators, to ensure that this document does provide a framework for assessment and not a straight jacket.

One element of the conference that did surprise me was the very open/honest atmosphere that ASFE has created over the years. This was exemplified by the presentation of several ‘Case Histories’. These presentations by ASFE members describe in unambiguous words of few syllables how and why things went wrong on their projects which led to liabilities and costs against them. The topics covered ranged from; foundation/pavement design, a de minimus site investigation and to a case of unfair dismissal [in this instance a claim for $25 million by the employee who had been employed for less than 1 year!]. In each case the lessons learned by the member company were clearly spelt out for the benefit of all. The question and answer sessions were particularly illuminating.

In the UK we are perhaps less prepared to wash our dirty linen in public. However, these sessions were so powerful and reinforced the written advice that both ASFE and AGS are giving to members that I believe we would do well to adopt this practice to our own Members Day. Watch this space!

This is now the third time that the AGS Chairman has attended the ASFE conference and the potential benefits are beginning to be realised. There is much more still to be gained by developing this liaison further over the coming years and I am pleased to be able to report that Dan Harpstead, the new ASFE President, was a guest speaker at this year’s AGS Members’ Day.

Hugh Mallett