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Date: June 24, 1999
Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Associate
Jennifer Cavendish, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>


New Methods, Focus Needed
To Spur Cleanup of DOE Waste Sites

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has spent billions of dollars on ground-water and soil cleanup at the nation's nuclear-weapons facilities, but conventional technologies are inadequate for the toughest jobs, says a new report from a National Research Council committee. Most innovative methods for cleaning up contaminated ground water and soil are in the early stages of development, and those that are available are infrequently used.

"The technology that often is used to remediate contaminated sites is simply ineffective and unable to accomplish the massive job that needs to be done," said committee chair C. Herb Ward, professor of environmental science, engineering, ecology, and evolutionary biology at Rice University in Houston, where he also serves as Foyt Family Chair of Engineering. "That means DOE's cleanup efforts won't meet federal and state regulatory standards unless the agency shifts its focus to both developing and implementing new methods." Within DOE, the responsibility for developing innovative cleanup technologies falls to the Subsurface Contaminants Focus Area (SCFA).

To cultivate fresh approaches and expand their use, SCFA should focus on the most promising methods, improve communication between its staff and site employees, and sponsor more field tests to obtain better data on the performance and cost of various technologies, the committee said. Overall, its recommendations centered on four areas – technology development, program direction, barriers to deploying new technology, and budget limitations.

SCFA's budget was cut from $82.1 million in 1994 to $14.7 million in 1998. This year, its budget grew to $25 million, but that still is insufficient to pay for a significant number of field tests of new cleanup technologies, the committee found.

Even so, SCFA should make the most of its budget by continuing to work with private-sector technology developers to find ways to adapt their methods to DOE's cleanups, the committee said. Likewise, SCFA should continue participating in groups sponsored by the Remediation Technologies Development Forum – a consortium of industry, government, and university representatives interested in finding cheaper and more effective contaminant-treatment methods.

DOE is responsible for cleaning up its own contaminated sites, but individual DOE project managers, or private contractors who report to them, have much leeway when deciding how the work should be done. At most sites, excavation is used to treat contaminated soil, and conventional pump-and-treat systems are used to restore polluted ground water. Both approaches have major drawbacks when it comes to cleaning persistent contaminants, the report said. Excavation is risky because it can destroy native ecosystems and increase the likelihood of human exposure to contamination. Pump-and-treat systems take contaminated water from the ground, treat it at the surface, and then return the water underground or deposit it off site. These systems often are ineffective at flushing out persistent contaminants, however.

Several innovative technologies, some of which SCFA helped to create, are now being used at a limited number of sites to improve the efficiency of ground-water and soil cleanup efforts. And SCFA should take steps to expand the use of such methods, the committee said. It cited several examples of promising approaches such as electrokinetic technologies, which can extract metal and radionuclide contaminants by applying electrical fields to soil. Injecting steam into polluted areas also can move contaminants, which can then be extracted through recovery wells. At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington, SCFA has successfully developed a method to treat chromium-contaminated water by injecting chemical agents that immobilize chromium.

The committee also urged SCFA to place a higher priority on developing new methods to treat contaminants where they are found underground – a cheaper and less-risky approach compared with excavation or pump-and-treat systems. SCFA also should sponsor additional on-site technology demonstrations and prepare detailed technical reports of findings so that new approaches can be more carefully evaluated for potential application at various sites.

Regulatory Bottlenecks

While noting that technological limitations have slowed progress in cleanup efforts, the committee pointed out some of the regulatory and management problems SCFA has faced. In many cases, a lack of incentives for quick cleanup of DOE sites has dampened demand for new technologies among DOE site managers and contractors. In other instances, site managers prefer to stick with familiar methods because of the liability for cleanup costs if new approaches fail.

Despite these obstacles, SCFA should take steps to build field employees' trust in the unit and its technologies, the committee said. It should, for example, increase the involvement of DOE field employees who are responsible for selecting treatment technology in the unit's efforts to plan site demonstrations and set overall program direction. SCFA also should increase its use of peer review to determine technology needs and evaluate prospective projects.

The study focused on three harmful and extremely persistent categories of contaminants commonly found in ground water and soil: metals, radioactive nuclides, and dense nonaqueous-phase liquids, which include solvents that are oily and heavier than water. The materials were part of processes used in nuclear-weapons production at facilities owned or overseen by the agency, dating back to the World War II Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear bomb.

Many of these contaminants also are generated in the production of durable goods – such as computers, automobiles, and airplanes – and can be found on sites owned by private companies and other federal agencies. Like some other industries, the department at one time disposed of waste in landfills, lagoons, or underground wells, and spills were not uncommon. But contaminants at DOE's 113 installations in 30 states pose additional risks to personal health and the environment because they contain radionuclides, which generally were not used in other industries.
When Congress enacted measures such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act – known as Superfund – policy-makers assumed that technology could reverse contamination problems. But there are limits to what conventional methods can accomplish because underground environments vary widely. Geological differences across sites further complicate researchers' abilities to predict how cleanup technologies will perform. Given these challenges, scientifically designed field tests are essential before most innovative cleanup methods now in development can be widely deployed, the committee concluded.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. A committee roster follows. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit organization that provides advice on science and technology under a congressional charter.

Read the full text of Groundwater and Soil Cleanup: Improving Management of Persistent Contaminants for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources
Board on Radioactive Waste Management

Committee on Technologies for Cleanup of Subsurface Contaminants in the DOE Weapons Complex

C. Herb Ward (chair)
Foyt Family Chair of Engineering
Rice University

Herbert E. Allen
Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Professor of Oceanography
Graduate College of Marine Studies
University of Delaware

Richard E. Belsey
Emeritus Professor of Pathology
Oregon Health Sciences University

Kirk W. Brown
Professor of Soil Science, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences
Texas A&M University, and
K.W. Brown Environmental Services
College Station

Randall J. Charbeneau
Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, and
Director, Center for Research of Water Resources
University of Texas

Richard A. Conway (1)
Environmental Consultant and Retired Senior Corporate Fellow
Union Carbide Corp.
South Charlestown, W.Va.

Helen E. Dawson
Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Science and Engineering
Colorado School of Mines

John C. Fountain
Professor of Geochemistry, Department of Geology
State University of New York

Richard L. Johnson
Associate Professor, Department of Environmental Science and Engineering
Oregon Graduate Institute of Science and Technology, and
Director, Center for Groundwater Research

Robert D. Norris
Technical Director of Bioremediation Services
Eckenfelder, Brown and Caldwell
Nashville, Tenn.

Frederick G. Pohland (1)
Professor and Edward R. Weidlein Chair of Environmental Engineering
University of Pittsburgh

Karl K. Turekian (2)
Benjamin Silliman Professor, Department of Geology and Geophysics
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

John C. Westall
Chair, Department of Chemistry
Oregon State University
Corvallis, and
Adjunct Professor, Department of Science and Engineering
Oregon Graduate Institute of Science and Technology


Jacqueline A. MacDonald
Study Director

(1) Member, National Academy of Engineering
(2) Member, National Academy of Sciences