Processing Magazine

Contaminated groundwater sites in U.S. could cost $127 billion to clean, report says

November 13, 2012

WASHINGTON — At least 126,000 sites across the U.S. have contaminated groundwater that requires remediation and the estimated cost of complete cleanup at these sites ranges from $110 billion to $127 billion, according to a new report from the National Research Council.

The report added that about 10 percent of these sites are considered "complex," meaning restoration is unlikely to be achieved in the next 50 to 100 years due to technological limitations.

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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, such as military installations. 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.

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"The complete removal of contaminants from groundwater at possibly thousands of complex sites in the U.S. is unlikely, and no technology innovations appear in the near time horizon that could overcome the challenges of restoring contaminated groundwater to drinking water standards," said Michael Kavanaugh, chair of the committee that wrote the report and a principal with Geosyntec Consultants, Inc. in Oakland, Calif. "At many of these complex sites, a point of diminishing returns will often occur as contaminants in groundwater remain stalled at levels above drinking water standards despite continued active remedial efforts. We are recommending a formal evaluation be made at the appropriate time in the life cycle of a site to decide whether to transition the sites to active or passive long-term management."