A socio-ecological adaptive approach to contaminated mega-site management: From 'control and correct' to 'coping with change'

Mario Schirmer, Ken Lyon, James E. Armstrong, Katharine N. Farrell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Mega-sites have a notable impact on surrounding ecological systems. At such sites there are substantial risks associated with complex socio-ecological interactions that are hard to characterize, let alone model and predict. While the urge to control and clean-up mega-sites (control and correct) is understandable, rather than setting a goal of cleaning up such sites, we suggest a more realistic response strategy is to address these massive and persistent sources of contamination by acknowledging their position as new features of the socio-ecological landscapes within which they are located. As it seems nearly impossible to clean up such sites, we argue for consideration of a 'coping with change' rather than a 'control and correct' approach. This strategy recognizes that the current management option for a mega-site, in light of its physical complexities and due to changing societal preferences, geochemical transformations, hydrogeology knowledge and remedial technology options may not remain optimal in future, and therefore needs to be continuously adapted, as community, ecology, technology and understanding change over time. This approach creates an opportunity to consider the relationship between a mega-site and its human and ecological environments in a different and more dynamic way. Our proposed approach relies on iterative adaptive management to incorporate mega-site management into the overall socio-ecological systems of the site's context. This approach effectively embeds mega-site management planning in a triple bottom line and environmental sustainability structure, rather than simply using single measures of success, such as contaminant-based guidelines. Recognizing that there is probably no best solution for managing a mega-site, we present a starting point for engaging constructively with this seemingly intractable issue. Therefore, we aim to initiate discussion about a new approach to mega-site management, in which the complexity of the problems posed by mega-sites is reflected upon in its entirety. These complexities are associated with uncertainties and unknowns that have to be addressed, as they have an impact on the strategies being developed and applied. We contend that the best that can be hoped for in mega-site management is an acceptable solution for the current state of affairs, with good flexibility to modify strategies as new site conditions, remediation possibilities, community preferences and management objectives develop over time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)101-109
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Contaminant Hydrology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology


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