Putting A Price Tag On Pollution

New Tools Could Help Public Agencies Charge Fees For Soil Contamination

When public officials review plans for a new factory, they often face a tough environmental question: How much will it cost to clean up or limit the soil contamination caused by the factory?

A Johns Hopkins University researcher wants to help them answer such questions.

Roger Ghanem, an associate professor of civil engineering, is creating computational tools that make reliable predictions about how contamination will spread through soil. With this information in hand, Ghanem says, public officials will be able to charge the builder an equitable fee to cover the cost of keeping these pollutants in check.

Private builders will benefit, too, Ghanem says. Even before they present plans to city hall, companies could use the same tools to decide whether pollution impact fees will make it too costly to build on a particular site.

Government officials urgently need a credible method of predicting the spread of pollution so they can charge appropriate cleanup fees, the researcher says. When new housing tracts and shopping centers are proposed, local officials commonly charge fees to help pay for the new schools and roads needed to support these projects. Such fees are based on widely accepted ways of predicting population and traffic changes. But consider industrial plants, which often discharge toxic and non-toxic waste that seeps through the soil, affecting vegetation and water supplies. It is much harder to measure and predict the corresponding levels of contamination, but it must be done to justify the collection of fees.

"Right now," says Ghanem, "predictions about the spread of ground pollutants are not very reliable. Public officials cannot assess the magnitude of the pollution a project is going to produce, so they have no accurate model to base the fees on. But if they had a way to make accurate predict

Contact: Phil Sneiderman
(410) 516-7160
Johns Hopkins University

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