Cleanup of US Groundwater Contamination Limited by Technology

by | Nov 9, 2012

About 10 percent of the 126,000 contaminated groundwater sites in the United States are considered complex, with restoration unlikely in the next 50 to 100 years due to technological limitations, according to a National Research Council report.

The report, “Alternatives for Managing the Nation’s Complex Contaminated Groundwater Sites,” estimated the cost of complete cleanup at these sites ranges from $110 billion to $127 billion.

The US Department of Defense has already spent about $30 billion in hazardous waste remediation to address past legacies of its industrial operations. DOD sites account for some 3.4 percent of the total active remediation sites, many of which present the greatest technical challenges to restoration with equally high costs.

The DOD asked the National Research Council to examine the future of groundwater remediation efforts and the challenges facing the US Army and other responsible agencies as they pursue site closures.

The National Research Council said the complete removal of contaminants from groundwater at possibly thousands of complex sites in the US is unlikely. The report recommends a formal evaluation be made at the appropriate time in the life cycle of a site to determine whether to transition the sites to active or passive long-term management.

Public water supplies are threatened at 18 US Army installations and private drinking water wells are known to be affected at 23 installations, the report said. Each of the other armed services also is responsible for groundwater contamination that has affected drinking water supplies, the best known being Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in North Carolina, Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts and the Bethpage Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant in New York.

The committee responsible for the report said 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.

A report released in September by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions found the DOD as well as NASA, the General Services Administration and the Smithsonian Institution have all used information and communications technologies to reduce energy consumption and emissions while at the same time cutting costs and meeting sustainability mandates.

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