Environmental Forensics Insights from Kim D. Desrosiers
Kim Desrosiers is a Managing Director within the Environmental Solutions practice of FTI Consulting – an independent global business advisory firm, dedicated to finding solutions to complex problems for clients. Kim started in client services in the environmental space twenty-five years ago, moving from federal enforcement into the private sector. Here, Kim speaks to Finance […]
Kim Desrosiers is a Managing Director within the Environmental Solutions practice of FTI Consulting – an independent global business advisory firm, dedicated to finding solutions to complex problems for clients. Kim started in client services in the environmental space twenty-five years ago, moving from federal enforcement into the private sector. Here, Kim speaks to Finance Monthly about environmental forensics, clients’ expectations and the benefits of meditation for everyone.
Tell us a little about environmental forensics and the surrounding areas by which you fill your role in management and planning consulting?
Simply stated, environmental forensics is the application of environmental science and history to potential claims or actual legal cases. All forms of forensics use pattern recognition as a foundation. In modern forensics, fingerprinting is a good example of this approach and its application. Throughout the 1800s, various individuals recognised friction ridge skin patterns, both as it related to an individual, as the pattern was static over time and did not change with age, and within the human population, in that each was unique within the set. In fact, after billions of automated comparisons, no two have been found to be identical. It was found that fingerprints could be sampled and compared to a control, and over time, that process was proven to be a reliable means of identification.
Environmental forensics takes pattern recognition, and applies it in something like a data matrix within an historical construct, with boundaries applied to meet a desired objective. For example, in the case of analysing what party may be responsible for which part of an environmental cleanup, we look at the information available, what is recorded in geological repositories that have been sampled, and compare that to what is known about the historical activities that may have caused a release into the environment. Next, we place that data into a temporal matrix to identify the party or parties responsible for a release. The boundary is the physical boundary of the real property, and the desired objective can be to assign a dollar amount for the cleanup of that property, or a share of responsibility for that dollar amount, if multiple parties are involved.
How we help clients is by working with them through that process of identifying reliable patterns that reveal who is responsible, and that the responsibility is tied to meeting a certain threshold of reliability to a standard, often as defined by state or federal law. Once we identify a pattern, we can then design an approach for establishing and communicating the reliability of that pattern to others. That is probably the greatest asset of a consultant – the ability to effectively and succinctly communicate the rigger of the analysis to an audience who is unfamiliar with the jargon of the specialty field from which the data was derived. If you can convince a diverse group that the methodology was sound, your consulting is of high value.
Who do your clients commonly consist of, in which industries do they tend to work and with what problems do they come to you?
Typically, the matters we are uniquely equipped to handle from an environmental forensics standpoint involve the sites with the greatest costs, often referred to as ‘mega-sites’. Most often, our clients are operating within a self-selected group of parties, each with the experience to know that they have some measure of liability under Superfund law or equivalent state statute, and are interested in both cleaning up the environment, and avoiding litigation. Our client groups are made up of tens or hundreds of individual parties, and led by a common or coordinating legal counsel. At times, we will work for an individual client, but client groups tend to have the most complex issues relative to all similar matters, and that is where our practice really can help.
Clients come to us to help resolve environmental disputes that arise from either a lack of information or too much information. The lack of information might be driven because they found out they have liability from their counsel, but they don’t know why. We assist with the uncovering of the ‘why’ by knowing precisely where to look. On the problem of ‘too much information’, we can minimise risk and cost by opining on what is relevant or not. Given the ever increasing access to information, there is confusion because too much data obscures what really matters. We help by eliminating the noise and focusing on the signal.
What would you say are the three main pillars by which you serve your clients in this sphere?
This is an interesting and thought-provoking question. What arises for me around a pillar is its stability, and from an engineering standpoint, three is both efficient and effective. So, going with that concept of three pillars, an ‘E’ comes to mind, with equity, empathy, and excellence providing the structure. Equity has a quality of balance and measure, so that in working for large groups of parties, we are able to treat all clients fairly. Empathy is an undervalued but highly effective means for connecting with each individual client view, respecting each and their interests and concerns while simultaneously serving the group as a whole. Lastly, I would say holding the intention of excellence drives precision and discernment in every task and dollar spent.
Can you recall a particular client and dispute where your expertise proved to be crucial in achieving the desired outcome?
Environmental forensics is as much about knowing what to look for as it is knowing what it means when you don’t find it. In one matter, we were retained to develop a method to describe how each party was responsible for the costs of cleaning up a rail yard. Across the rail network, several parties had purchased one type of chemical, polychlorinated biphenyls or ‘PCBs’, as an insulating fluid for the rail cars operating across the rail system. When you look at the chemical signature of PCBs, the signal contains information about the specific ‘brand’ of the product type left in the environment. This is a classic case of chemical fingerprinting. The compelling thing about this case was that we could match the original formulation from the chemical fingerprint to historical purchase and service records for each of the rail cars on the network. We could then determine how much of one type of PCB was used by each party, and when the releases occurred. What we found was that nearly all of the costs for the enforcement action were the responsibility of one party, who was not our client. We knew our model was authoritative because it was corroborated by other independent lines of evidence. We also knew that we brought tremendous value to the client because others had previously looked at the same collection of information but failed to see the pattern. What we saw was not just that one PCB fingerprint was there, but that another one wasn’t. We won a client for life with that one.
What’s your golden nugget of advice for our readers?
Whenever I am asked that question, I always respond by encouraging others to take up a meditation practice. Above everything else, to me, working with my own mind, learning how it works, has been a constant source of discovery and enrichment. There is a confidence that develops in knowing your own mind that cascades throughout your entire life, including your professional world. I’ll credit becoming an ice climber in my late forties to meditation. And I’ll credit my clients with helping cultivate a life worth living off the ice, in this complex and opportunity-rich world of business.