From the Ground Up

The summary

  • The average economic liability of contaminated soils in Canada is around $117 Billion CAD.
  • Across the world, over 10 million Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of soil is contaminated and if dig-n-dump techniques are used to clean them, it would produce the equivalent of 5 years of global carbon emissions.
  • As a science team we proved our soil science in the laboratory and multiple field trials.
  • After 27 years of working on contaminated soils and becoming one of the top environmental scientists in the world, we founded EMS to create a technology platform that could sustainably remediate soils with a scalable business model.

What is EMS?

Environmental Material Science Inc. is a Saskatoon-based company that has been producing innovative technologies to solve the sustainability and business challenges with contaminated soils.

What is ESG?

ESG is a set of Environmental, Social, and Governance criteria that socially conscious investors use to screen a company’s operations for potential investment. ESG creates a financial incentive for companies to develop responsible and sustainable business practices.

After nearly 30 years working in academia with an already *ahem* cushy job? How would ESG lead me to start a company determined to clean contaminated soils worldwide (I mean, wasn’t there enough on my plate)? Well read on to find out.

The Science of Contaminated Soil

Over 27 years of working in contaminated soils, I investigated how humans poison soil and how soils poison humans. Along the way, I learned that once you knew how the soils were poisoned, you could clean these soils, or at least reduce how badly they poisoned humans. For example, in 1992 I worked on understanding how acid rain was poisoning plants. Then in 1993, I began investigating how plants could clean up hydrocarbons. Over the following decades, I continued to work on soil remediation and risk assessment on metals, explosives, and hydrocarbons across Europe, North America, Antarctica, and the Arctic. I became one of the world foremost experts in contaminated soils, ranked in top 0.6% of environmental scientists worldwide and receiving an Industrial Research Chair position at the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Soil Science.

At this point, I had a deep (scientific) knowledge of contaminated soils. But there was much I had yet to learn…

The Sustainability Problem of Contaminated Soil

Federated Cooperatives Limited (FCL) approached me and introduced me to the sustainability problem of contaminated sites facing the world. The sustainability challenge posed by oil and gas polluted soil is staggering, with more than 38 thousand Olympic-sized swimming pools of polluted soil in Canada and more than 10 million worldwide1. Remediating this soil with ex situ (a.k.a. dig ‘n’ dump or DnD…apologies Dungeons and Dragons fans) technologies would emit 5 years’ worth of global carbon emissions2. This, combined with Canada’s liabilities estimated at $117 Billion, represents a monumental challenge in terms of how to sustainably clean our soils.

FCL knew that if they could help develop a new class of technology it would not only help their cooperative members but also the world. We needed a technology that could clean up polluted soil without excavation or using toxic chemicals. The technology had to be robust, reliable, and sustainable. Importantly, FCL had a strong internal team of specialists who could help develop the technology, because there is a long road between science and technology. After some laboratory and field trials, I felt that we had proven the science3 and then rolled it out across multiple field trials4.

Now I thought I understood how to clean up contaminated soils. Though the learning continued…

1. Assume, 7.8 Billion people, 2.72 sites per 1000, 34% of sites are hydrocarbon impacted, site size is 4,000 m3.

2. For comparison purposes, the entire global store of soil carbon is estimated at 2500 Pg, thus ex-situ remediation would be like lighting 2.5% of the worlds soils on fire and sending it into the sky.

3. Siciliano et al., 2016. Environmental Science & Technology.

4. Huang et al., 2019. Environmental Science & Technology.

The Business Problem of Contaminated Soil

Next, Genesis Capital introduced me to the business problem of contaminated sites. The business case for ESG remediation is challenging. Sustainable solutions can have high costs, often equalling the cost of excavation, which is approximately $120 per cubic metre of polluted soil5.

With 10 million Olympic-sized swimming pools of contaminated soil, this amounts to more than $1 Trillion! Worse, unlike excavation, sustainable solutions are uncertain and time consuming. In contrast, DnD’ing the soil is quick and certain. But DnD can become very expensive, with a significant carbon footprint, destroying thousands of years of soil development, uses an enormous amount of water, and emits a massive amount of greenhouse gasses.

Thus, companies faced a dilemma: be confident in the timeline and cost but at an unsustainable economic and environmental cost, or try to be sustainable but stress the business model.

The learning curve steepened…

5. Sorenson et al., 2019. Canadian Journal of Soil Science

The Solution to Contaminated Soil

The challenge was clear, but how do we address it? EMS needed to create a technology platform that could sustainably remediate soils using a scalable business model.
The good news? EMS has created a suite of interconnected solutions driven by site-relevant data to facilitate custom site-specific remediation. There are many engineering groups that can create value for their clients with our technology and reduce water use by 95%, greenhouse gas emissions by 99%, and soil destruction by 130%.

Over the decade of me helping to build the technology, I had learned that robust science needed even more robust technology.   Or as is commonly said “Congratulations, you have done the hard part.  Now comes the harder part.”   It turns out making a system that can help companies accurately track and report on ESG really was the ‘harder’ part of all of this.