Open-File Report 2006-1283

Published 2006
Online Only

A Workshop Investigating the Potential for the Application of Decision Analysis Principles and Processes to Geoenvironmental Situations: Selenium in West Virginia

By James L. Coleman, Jr.1, Ione L. Taylor2, Tim Nieman3, and Karen Jenni4

1U.S. Geological Survey, Mail Stop 956 National Center, Reston VA 20192
2U.S. Geological Survey, Mail Stop 150 National Center, Reston VA 20192
3Geomatrix Consultants, Inc., 2101 Webster Street, Oakland CA 94612
4Insight Decisions LLC, 1616 Seventeenth Street, Suite 268, Denver CO 80202 (formerly with Geomatrix Consultants, 1401 Seventeenth St, Suite 600, Denver CO 80212)

Executive Summary

On February 2, 2005, the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS), welcomed a number of participants from the USGS, U. S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) to a workshop investigating the potential for employing Decision Analysis (DA) principles and processes to the scientific research and data delivery by the USGS. Decision Analysis is an integrated set of processes and tools that can be used to support decision-making under conditions incorporating uncertainty and risk. The workshop was conducted by Geomatrix Consultants, who taught the participants the fundamentals of Decision Analysis, while also guiding them to develop a DA framework for an actual real-life problem.

The goal of this workshop, sponsored by the Office of the Director, Eastern Region USGS, was to evaluate the feasibility of utilizing a Decision Analysis approach to

  1. involve more fully USGS scientists and customers, particularly those from other DOI Bureaus, in co-designing multidisciplinary science that addresses complex issues, and to
  2. permit USGS to appraise and learn how to enhance the value of its science and information in reducing uncertainty and evaluating risk.

Decision Analysis is one of a series of approaches the USGS and others are evaluating which have proven useful for addressing decision making for complex problems in different contexts. These include adaptive management, joint fact-finding, decision support, and stakeholder analysis. Decision Analysis is somewhat broader in scope than the other four, and can be usefully combined with some of the more process-focused approaches. In short, DA is

  • more quantitative than Joint Fact Finding,
  • more analytically-focused than Adaptive Management,
  • more process-focused than Decision Support Systems, and
  • more decision-focused than Stakeholder Analysis.

The USGS has a set of unique advantages, which enable it to embrace Decision Analysis. It is currently composed of 4 scientific disciplines (geology, geography, hydrology, biology), which address process-focused issues of variable physical and temporal scales from the microscopic to the planetary and from microseconds to millions of years.

Workshop goals were addressed by developing a framework for a pilot DA study that focused on the presence of selenium in West Virginia watersheds. The pilot study examined the factors associated with the benefits of energy resource use versus potential health risks. This pilot study was intended both as a training exercise for the participants and a feasibility study for the USGS to assess the potential value of DA in conveying USGS products and services to a variety of customers.

Effective, multidisciplinary science requires an overarching vision and understanding of the challenges at hand, efficiently linked to an organization of individuals and their expertise, each bringing and sharing a unique perspective, methodology, and conceptual model. DA links the vision and the organization, encouraging the participants to investigate alternative solution pathways that are intended to make the solution more relevant and durable. The participants in this workshop came together to practice integrative science, to learn how fully integrative science could be designed and implemented, and how that science could be packaged and delivered to decision makers and other end users of USGS science.

Selenium (Se) was chosen as a theme for the workshop to enable the participants to bring together their individual knowledge about a highly relevant geoenvironmental issue with which they were personally and regularly involved. The objective of the workshop was not to solve the problem, but rather to learn how to solve a problem, using Decision Analysis, and to introduce the technique to scientists and managers. We could have picked practically any geoenvironmental problem to address as an example problem. Selenium is a trace metal that has been recognized in the coal-bearing stratigraphy in the Appalachian Basin of the eastern United States. It (as well as other Appalachian Basin trace metal elements, such as mercury and arsenic) is known to cause adverse health effects, when its concentrations exceed critical thresholds. Selenium has been reported from some Appalachian watersheds and their associated biologic communities. The area of focus of the workshop was the potential mobilization of Se as a result of mountain top mining and valley filling operations in the Central Appalachian coalfields. Selenium in eastern watershed drainages was a specific theme on which to anchor the workshop, because concerns have been voiced regarding its apparent increased environmental presence as a result of significant ground disturbances in the Central Appalachian coalfields.

Summary and Conclusions from Workshop: Any satisfactory learning experience creates more questions than answers. This was certainly true of this experience. By getting a glimpse of what "the other guy" sees and needs to know, it quickly became apparent how limited our present approaches are to defining and solving scientific problems AND THEN communicating the results in effective terms to decision makers and other stakeholders. A list of some of these questions is presented in Appendix II.

At the end of the three-day exercise, at a time when individuals should be eager to quickly wrap things up and go home, there was an unusually high level of energy and enthusiasm among the participants. This was noted, both by the participants, as well as by outside observers who were present from the beginning to the conclusion of the workshop. Those in the regulatory role were very excited about how science could play a stronger and more useful part in the decisions they routinely make. In addition, it was invigorating to see highly respected scientists come together to discuss what they knew AND did not know about their component of the issue and potential new areas of research that could be undertaken to fill in some of the gaps. The participants dispersed at the end of the workshop thinking that if they had the money and the time, they could immediately address several newly identified issues around selenium in Appalachian watersheds and work towards an integrated method for helping decision makers make more informed decisions. With Decision Analysis, we recognized that we could bring two ends of an issue together and be better informed about their interdependencies. In using this comparison framework, our science, then, becomes realistic, transparent, and useful – not just some theoretical or abstract intellectual exercise.

It is important to note that no conclusions or interpretations from the workshop (or any of the examples discussed in this summary) should be considered scientific in terms of content or accuracy. This workshop was merely an experiment to see if Decision Analysis tools and processes could be used for the USGS to address an integrated thematic issue. As intended, this work does provide a broad foundation for further work on selenium geoenvironmental issues.

Selected responses from Workshop Participants (full collection on pages 41 and 42).

  • In the DA process, the stakeholders identify the most important issues.
  • The resultant DA model helps bring people together; they can go away and still stay on track with model as a guide
  • The treatment of uncertainty and sensitivity is valuable for understanding options and decisions.
  • DA leaves a strong record of how you reached a decision, because the record of decisions is left behind within the process decision documents. This helps the user clearly document a decision process to better address future questions.
  • DA can help identify keystone research needs.
  • The Guiding Group was amazed at energy of Core Group at the end of 3 days. They wanted to know how did USGS disciplines come together so well?


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