The important first step in remediating contaminated sites is completing characterization. The process for characterization of natural environmental media (i.e., soil, sediment, surface water, groundwater) involves three basic steps: (1) develop a plan, (2) implement the plan by collecting information necessary to define the nature and extent of contaminants in the natural media, and (3) integrate, interpret and report the results. Because of budgetary constraints, these three steps are typically applied linearly with the expectation that by the end of one application of the process the site will be characterized with sufficient resolution to make decisions about remedial actions. Our experience over the past 13 years at a complex site in Tennessee has shown that this linear approach to characterization does not produce the desired resolution. Because characterization is typically a process of defining unknowns the inflexible nature of the linear approach makes it impractical to react as the conceptual understanding of site contaminants changes in response to the acquisition of new data. An alternative, flexible approach to characterization has been developed based on lessons learned. Over the past 3 years the flexible approach has cost-effectively produced the information needed for decision making.

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