Who Knew? The National Research Council Discovers That Many Groundwater Cleanups Will Take More Than 100 Years

Daily Environment Report today noted that the National Research Council has produced a study, Alternatives for Managing the Nation’s Complex Contaminated Groundwater Sites, which assesses the scope of the groundwater contamination problem and our ability to address it. One significant takeaway from the report is that

Significant limitations with currently available remedial technologies persist that make achievement of MCLs throughout the aquifer unlikely at most complex groundwater sites in a time frame of 50-100 years. Furthermore, future improvements in these technologies are likely to be incremental, such that long-term monitoring and stewardship at sites with groundwater contamination should be expected.

This is, to put it bluntly, not a surprise. How many practitioners have worked on sites where the remedy is expected to take more than 100 years? Sadly, I know I have.

According to the Daily Environment Report, Michael Kavanaugh, chair of the committee that wrote the report, believes that “this finding needs to inform decision making at these complex sites.” We’ll see about that. I’m skeptical that EPA or Congress will be listening.

Arguably, the most important recommendation made in the report is that

If the effectiveness of site remediation reaches a point of diminishing returns prior to reaching cleanup goals and optimization has been exhausted, the transition to monitored natural attenuation or some other active or passive management should be considered using a formal evaluation. This transition assessment would determine whether a new remedy is warranted at the site or whether long-term management is appropriate.

PRPs have been making this argument for years, and it has largely fallen on deaf ears at EPA. Given that the report notes that the cost to complete cleanup at these sites exceeds $100 billion, isn’t it time we started asking ourselves whether this is money well-spent?

(FYI, the link above is to a free pre-publication copy. You can purchase the final report here.)

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