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 QA/QC Dimensions
 QA/QC Concepts

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QA/QC Concepts

Triad concepts are grounded in the central principle of managing decision uncertainty.

Within the Triad approach, concepts are grounded in the central principle of "managing decision uncertainty." Managing uncertainty is a natural partner of quality assurance. All quality systems seek to maximize an organization's ability to meet its mission goals with a minimum of mistakes, inefficiency, and waste. The Triad approach has the same objectives in the context of contaminated sites.

Quality assurance (QA) activities for all environmental projects occur at several levels. For the purpose of this discussion, three distinct levels can be identified:

  • Organizational or Programmatic Level. At the organizational level, QA activities ensure that the program or organization is successful by overseeing the infrastructure necessary for individual projects in the program, and making sure activities have the resources they need to be successful.

  • Project Level. At the project level, QA activities support the success of an individual project by ensuring that accurate information is channeled to the right people at the right time so that decisions can be made during project implementation that are defensible and cost-effective.

  • Technical Level. At the technical level, QA activities ensure that the individual technical activities that generate, process, or synthesize data (or other information) for the decision process are performing within accepted limits. These activities are also commonly known as quality control (QC).

Organizational QA addresses similar issues no matter what the organization's mission. When organizational QA is in place and effective, the mission of the organization is understood. The roles, responsibilities, and lines of authority are clearly defined. Project staff is properly qualified, trained and supervised. Procedures and funds exist for procuring necessary services and supplies. Records are properly maintained. Problems are detected and resolved in a timely fashion. Mechanisms are established that encourage continuous improvement.

Project QA for a contaminated site investigation and/or restoration project is focused on those activities that integrate the efforts of regulators (both technical staff and management), responsible parties (both technical staff and management), and other stakeholders to ensure a cost-effective, successful project. Many of these things are the same or similar to organizational quality assurance activities, but occur at the level of an individual project, as opposed to the level of an entire program or organization.

Project-specific systematic planning is the foundation of project quality. Triad systematic planning identifies uncertainties that prevent confident decision-making from taking place, and then develops strategies for managing that uncertainty. Quality assurance activities are one of those strategies. The Triad systematic planning process is the mechanism for developing program and project specific QA/QC requirements. These requirements are, in turn, articulated in dynamic work strategies and work plans.

Systematic planning activities that directly support project QA include:

  • Identifying what a "successful" project should look like.
  • Articulating project goals ("the mission") that are understandable and acceptable to all involved parties.
  • Clearly defining the roles, responsibilities, and authorities for project participants.
  • Fostering open lines of meaningful communication (i.e., developing social capital).
  • Identifying resource needs to guarantee access to the right people and technologies for the job.
  • Developing consensus on what strategies to use to reach project goals.
  • Ensuring there will be clear evidence and proper documentation that project goals were actually achieved at the end of the project.

Technical QA is often called "quality control." Quality control checks ensure that equipment is working properly, the operator is performing appropriately, and that malfunctions or false readings do not go undetected. There is a tremendous body of work in the environmental field on the topic of QC. Much of it focuses on control of analytical chemistry methods, but there are equally important QC aspects for geophysical and geotechnical techniques, sample collection tools, GPS equipment, software and computer programs, etc. Controlling the full range of factors that could introduce uncertainty into the data generation and manipulation process is important to the Triad approach, so QC is a critical function. QC establishes the quality of data and provides a mechanism for quickly identifying problems in the data generation process that require correction.

The term "data uncertainty" expresses the idea that something about a data set is lacking from a decision-making perspective. A range of situations can contribute to data uncertainty. The necessary data may be completely missing from a data set. Accurate data might exist but not in sufficient quantities to provide confidence that the CSM is sufficiently complete and accurate for decision-making purposes. Alternatively, a sufficient quantity of data might exist, but the analytical quality of the data may either be in doubt or inadequate. This situation might occur if there is unexplained variability in the results (such as from inadequate control over factors related to sample collection and processing), or if QC documentation accompanying the data results did not adequately demonstrate that the equipment and operators were all functioning correctly, or if there was the possibility for fraudulently reported data.

All of these contributions to data uncertainty may be relevant for site investigation and cleanup projects. A great deal of effort has gone into developing mechanisms to assess and control the quality of laboratory data used to support hazardous waste site decision-making. Many of these QC protocols work well when well-defined or simple matrices and well-behaved analytes are involved. Standardized QC procedures have less ability to detect and report poor performance under real-world conditions when complex matrices and poor-behaving analytes are involved. Data users need to be aware that it is possible for standard reporting and validation/verification protocols to meet every requirement, yet the data will lead to misleading conclusions if used.

For the Triad, uncertainty management means managing those program or project aspects that affect the success of the project. This keeps "the management of uncertainty" (including the use of QA/QC) from becoming an academic exercise that could expend valuable resources, but not improve the likelihood of a successful project.

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