Article Contaminated Land

Q&A with Chris Swainston, AGS Contaminated Land WG Member

- by

Chris Swainston BSc. (Hons), PGCE, CGeol, FGS
Principal Geo-environmental Engineer
Geotechnics Limited

I am currently the principal geo-environmental engineer for Geotechnics Limited based in Coventry. I have been in the industry for over 20 years now with specialisms in contaminated land, asbestos and site investigation. I am a member of the AGS contaminated land working group, BGS contaminated land group, SoBRA, and chair the BSI EH/4 soil quality committee, responsible for (amongst other standards) BS10175. I am a chartered geologist as well as being a CGeol/CSci scrutineer and mentor. I have undertaken many interesting investigations over the years including Buncefield Oil Depot, Prospect Park, the Millennium Site and Sandridge to name but a few. Current duties at Geotechnics include responsibility for ISO9001, ISO14001 (qualified auditor) and in-house training.

What or who inspired you to join the geotechnical industry?
To be honest I didn’t even know you could do what I have actually done as a geologist when I joined the industry in back in 1994, I had some vague information from Portsmouth Polytechnic (as they then were) when the third year were used as guinea pigs for some of the materials that became parts of the first ever environmental geology degree, so I guess it would be that.

What does a typical day entail?
I am not sure there is a typical day in this industry, and certainly not in my position given the many hats I wear. I could be out on site observing and recording, organising a project, sampling for a client, training, project managing, invoicing, writing reports, ISO14001 auditing, advising clients and staff regarding waste, asbestos and environmental issues. About the only typical thing is the morning e-mail triage.

Are there any projects which you’re particularly proud to have been a part of?
I am not sure proud is the word exactly, but it was very interesting to be part of the Millennium site team, working in London is a so different from the rest of the UK and big projects always have their own unique challenges. Buncefield was surreal as I was there 3 days after it was put out and it was like walking into a black and white movie with ash covering everything around you and all the people evacuated, the lack of colour and sound was almost scary. Sandridge was the first part 2A and I was heavily involved in the water sampling for the project over several years. More recently, digging in Shakespeare’s back garden to determine the depth of the made ground as part of the Nash House museum redevelopment was one job I certainly like having on my CV.

What are the most challenging aspects of your role?
The most challenging aspects of my role are probably the odd nature of the questions you are sometimes asked. As the environmental, asbestos and waste in-house go-to-guy, I can get all sorts of questions for example what are the possible effects of drilling rigs on spawning salmon in Scotland (probably very little), how to tell the difference between a water and common vole (tail to body ratio), what is the difference between a waste characterisation and a WAC (both are required for disposal to landfill) and why these things make a difference to how we need to undertake our site investigations.

What AGS Working Group(s) are you a Member of and what are your current focuses?
I am currently a member of the Contaminated Land Working Group, but I have also recently been liaising with the lab group regarding updating of some of the AGS guidance on sampling in response to changes in ISO guidance. This is probably going to lead to the re-formation of the sampling sub-group that created many of the original documents. This is my current focus along with a potential update of the AGS cover systems guidance, which I covered in more detail in a presentation at the recent EXPO conference. I was also previously the liaison with the AGS Data Format Group in regards to environmental aspects of the format during the production of the AGS 3.1 extension and chair of the asbestos sub-group.

What do you enjoy most about being an AGS Member?
Meeting and interacting with fellow professionals to promote good practice through the production of authoritative guidance for the industry. The conferences are also very good.

What do you find beneficial about being an AGS Member?
Being able to be a part of this activity.

Why do you feel the AGS is important to the industry?
The AGS is vital to keep everyone in the industry in the loop regarding changes to standards, good practice, legal issues and guidance and to provide a mechanism for the industry to get together, share and promote good practice.

What changes would you like to see implemented in the geotechnical industry?
Oddly I would like to see day rate become standard, meterage can be somewhat self-defeating when what you often really need as an environmental specialist is to have a very close and good look at what is happening on challenging sites, where you can be frequently starting and stopping and may have to adjust to ever changing circumstances and contamination issues.

You represented the AGS at the Contamination Expo conference in September at ExCeL. What did your presentation outline and what did spectators learn?
My presentation outlined the contention that an update of the cover systems document (co-produced by AGS, BRE, NHBC and written by RSK back in 2004) was a good idea or not. Basically the presentation outlined the history of the document, its key points, a summary of its use over time, suggestions in terms of what could be done with the document and asking the audience if they knew about it, if it was still being used, what should be done, what could be done and if it had a place in modern remediation assessment. My argument is that it may still have a function in relation to sustainability and could also be well used as an option for low levels of asbestos contamination. Whilst this is not necessarily sufficient to argue for a wholesale re-write of the whole document, it may be sufficient for the AGS to consider producing an update sowing how it may still be used effectively in certain circumstances. I have fed the comments and responses back from this and other presentations to the AGSCLWG and we hope to be in a position to produce this new document shortly.