Environmental Protection

The Cleanup of Severely Contaminated Groundwater Sites May Have to Wait

According to a report from the National Research Council, there are at least 126,000 contaminated groundwater sites across the U.S. that requires remediation. Of these, 10 perfect are considered “complex”, which means that restoration is unlikely to happen in the next 50 to 100 years because of technical limitations.

Several national and state groundwater cleanup programs developed over the last three decades under various federal and state agencies aim to mitigate the human health and ecological risks posed by underground contamination. These programs include cleanup at Superfund sites, facilities that treat, store, and dispose of hazardous wastes, leaking underground storage tanks, and federal facilities. The U.S. Department of Defense has already spent approximately $30 billion in hazardous waste remediation to address past legacies of its industrial operations.

DOD sites represent approximately 3.4 percent of the total active remediation sites, but many of these sites present the greatest technical challenges to restoration with very high costs. Therefore, the agency asked the National Research Council to examine the future of groundwater remediation efforts and the challenges facing the U.S. Army and other responsible agencies as they pursue site closures.

The estimated range of remediation costs do not account for technical barriers to complete cleanup at complex sites or the costs of cleanup at future sites where groundwater may become contaminated. A substantial portion of the costs will come from public sources as some of complex sites are "orphan" sites and many other complex sites are the responsibility of federal or state agencies.

The committee said that the nomenclature for the phases of site cleanup and cleanup progress are inconsistent among public and private sector organizations. For example, many sites thought of as "closed" and considered "successes" still have contamination and will require continued oversight and funding over extended timeframes in order to maintain protectiveness, including 50 percent of the contaminated groundwater sites evaluated by the committee that have been deleted from the Superfund list.

"The central theme of this report is how the nation should deal with those sites where residual contamination will remain above levels needed to achieve restoration," said Michael Kavanaugh, chair of the committee.

The committee said that if a remedy at a site reaches a point where continuing expenditures bring little or no reduction of risk prior to attaining drinking water standards, a reevaluation of the future approach to cleaning up the site, called a transition assessment, should occur. The committee concluded that cost savings are anticipated from timelier implementation of the transition assessment process but funding will still be needed to maintain long-term management at these complex sites.

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