Conceptual Site Models (CSMs) in the Age of Environmental Data Management and IoT


  • Conceptual Site Models (CSMs) answer key management questions on site risk and whether a site should be cleaned or not.
  • Conceptual Site Models are a depreciating asset. Like a car, a CSM rapidly loses value as a planning tool once the CSM report is published.
  • Environmental Data Management (EDM) systems have taken over a key job of CSMs, namely data wrangling and storage.
  • IoTs are accelerating the CSM update cycle from annually to monthly.

Conceptual Site Model: “What’s happening at a contaminated site and how might it affect people”?

A CSM is a living document with a simple mission. Think: overview of how physical, chemical, and biological processes control how contaminants move around a site and how they may affect people.

A CSM needs to answer five questions:

  • Where are the contaminants and how much?
  • Are they moving and, if so, where?
  • Who or what is living on the site?
  • How could those living there be exposed to the contaminants?
  • What are the financial risks associated with the site?

A CSM typically begins before you have all the information you need to conclusively answer these questions. Over time, the CSM is meant to evolve as one learns more about a site. For example, as you finish a Phase I assessment, you typically have more clarity on the five questions. A Phase II fills in more detail, and then Supplemental Phase IIs continue to fill in details. Most CSMs are visual as they are often meant to provide a summary level of information, that can then be expanded upon in the text.

The CSM paradigm was developed in an era where you might collect groundwater data twice a year, and soil data every few years. The CSMs were meant to provide management teams with answers to common questions such as:

  • What are the contaminants of concern on the site?
  • Why do we need more characterization?
  • Why do we need to remediate?

As such, CSMs figured prominently at the front end of projects. For example, a CSM would be developed after a Phase II with the key objective of answering questions linked to risk and remediation.

  • How risky is the site?
  • Should we clean it?

If the decision was made to move forward with a remediation program, then a Remedial Action Plan (i.e., Corrective Action Plan) would draw heavily on the CSM, and typically in this process the CSM would end up being updated.

One way to think of a CSM is as a depreciating asset. The day the CSM is finished, is the day that the CSM is the most valuable. After that, its value diminishes. Within a few years (arguably shorter), most CSMs are no longer useful for planning purposes. 

EDM Systems are Transforming CSMs by Enabling AI

Electronic dance music you ask? While exciting, fortunately/unfortunately, we’re talking about the other EDM here: Environmental Data Management systems. Most organizations now have integrated EDM systems such as EQuIS or Sequeent to name two popular enterprise level solutions. One of the original jobs of CSMs was to corral all of the data collected in environmental investigations into one location. That job no longer exists as now site information is held within an EDM system. As a result, you no longer need to pay for a report that summarizes information collected by field teams.

Instead, a CSM now must go beyond simple data presentation and include interpretation and expert judgement. In other words, rather than simply saying: here are the pollutants and here’s where they were last year, CSMs must now address key questions about what are the knowledge gaps, what are predictive uncertainties (read: how precise are our “guesstimates”?), and how should we go about addressing those uncertainties.

Enter Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The advent of AI in the context of soil remediation provides a powerful tool to address the growing expectations on a CSM. AI can help us address questions like:

  • What type of data points we need to minimize uncertainty?
  • What are our site related predictions for the future?
  • Will our predictions exceed typical risk concerns?
  • What are appropriate risk standards at these sites?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is changing CSMs or “It’s aliiive!”

CSMs used to be static reports that collated the past ten years of data plus 12 months, and would interpret and report on the current state of the site. IoT sensors are pushing the update cycle on CSMs from a yearly event to a monthly event.

Environmental IoT sensors, like SoilSense, can provide information on soil and water quality every 30 minutes and, over the course of a month, provide thousands of data points to update the CSM, creating a living document (though with no bolts sticking out of the neck). The challenge for modern CSMs is somehow they must unravel this storm of environmental data and incorporate the insights in a way that addresses the key questions we discussed earlier.

EDM systems, IoT, and AI have enhanced the value of a CSM by providing timely insights that answer critical questions but at the end of the day, a CSM must still answer the five key questions.

Creating a living CSM that can interactively answer these questions for site owners, stakeholders, and technical experts is fast becoming industry table stakes and is core to EMS’s value position.