NIEHS-Funded Technologies Save Millions of Dollars
More than $100 million was saved through the adoption of remediation and detection tools supported by the Superfund Research Program (SRP), according to a recent commentary in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
This feature highlights the five case studies presented in the commentary and some of the overarching benefits to society documented by SRP grantees and partners. We focused our assessment on remediation and site monitoring technologies aimed at developing methods to reduce the amount and toxicity of potentially hazardous substances. For more information about the methods and supporting information, please refer to the commentary.
Case studies with documented economic benefits
For each case study, we compared the cost savings achieved by conventional technologies to the new SRP-supported technologies that produced the same or better results. These projects also show the breadth of remediation and detection research funded by the SRP.
Phytoremediation with hybrid poplar and cypress trees
Researchers led by Milt Gordon, Ph.D., and Lee Newman, Ph.D., at the University of Washington (UW) SRP Center pioneered the use of hybrid poplar trees to remove trichloroethylene (TCE) and other chlorinated contaminants from groundwater. They were the first to show conclusively that plants themselves, not just microorganisms associated with plants, are capable of degrading toxic compounds. Results from an SRP-funded controlled field study showed that trees removed more than 99 percent of TCE present in groundwater and that less than 9 percent of that TCE was released from the trees into the atmosphere.
A phytoremediation system using their hybrid poplars was installed as part of a remediation plan at a Superfund site at the Undersea Naval Warfare Center at Keyport, Washington, to treat TCE-contaminated groundwater. Applying hybrid poplars to the site saved an estimated $8.5 million to $10.5 million compared to traditional methods. The technology has been validated as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP). According to ESTCP estimates, as many as 1,000 U.S. DoD cleanup sites worldwide could use this technology, saving hundreds of millions of dollars.
Vadose-zone characterization technology
Researchers led by Mark Brusseau, Ph.D., at the University of Arizona SRP Center developed a new set of methods to characterize contaminants in the vadose zone, the area underground that is above the groundwater table where soil and rocks are not fully saturated with water. The approach can provide a more accurate measure of how contaminants behave and move in the vadose zone. By analyzing contaminant mass discharge, Brusseau and his research team helped to better understand the distribution of contaminants at a site, which can determine whether a remediation effort is effective or still needed.
Working with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Brusseau and colleagues assessed the performance of soil vapor extraction at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Hanford site in Washington state. Using his modeling strategy to calculate the source mass discharge over time, the new approach provided more information about the contaminant mass discharge and decreased the amount of work needed for remediation at the site. The U.S. DOE estimated that the approach led to a projected cost savings of $6.35 million.
Activated carbon to clean up contaminated sediment
University of Maryland, Baltimore County researcher Upal Ghosh, Ph.D., and colleagues developed a technology for on site remediation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in sediments. The product delivers specialized pellets of activated carbon, altering the native sediment in a way that reduces the ability of organisms to take up pollutants such as PCBs. With an SRP individual research project grant, Ghosh applied this technology in the field.
The technology, which reduces or eliminates the need for expensive dredging and hauling, was implemented in full scale to remediate a five-acre lake in Dover, Delaware, in 2013. It also has been selected as a component of the cleanup strategy for a contaminated sediment site in Middle River, Maryland. The remediation feasibility study for the Middle River Complex noted that this remedy would be approximately $22 million cheaper than complete removal of contaminated sediment. This technology is being evaluated in feasibility studies and has been included in the selected remedy at the Lower Duwamish Waterway and the Housatonic River Superfund sites.
Bioremediation of the chemical compound MTBE
With SRP funding, Kate Scow, Ph.D., and her team at the University of California, Davis SRP Center isolated the Methylibium petroleiphilum PM1 bacterial strain, which can completely degrade methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). They also determined that the PM1 strain frequently occurs naturally and found they could stimulate its activity by changing environmental factors, such as adding more oxygen.
In collaboration with an engineering firm, the scientists applied their method at the North Hollywood Tesoro Petroleum site in California. The new approach decreased the groundwater MTBE to low enough levels that the treated water could be returned to a drinking water aquifer. In addition, the technology also resulted in $14 million to $21 million in cost savings because it eliminated the need to drill two to three replacement wells at the site, which would have cost approximately $7 million each.
Steam-enhanced extraction method
Kent Udell, Ph.D., formerly at the University of California, Berkeley SRP Center and now at the University of Utah, developed a technology that enhances remediation by injecting steam underground and extracting volatile organic compounds contaminants such as trichloroethylene (TCE). As an SRP grantee, Udell refined and tested the steam injection method to accelerate remediation of TCE, coal tars, creosote, and other contaminants in groundwater.
At the Southern Edison Superfund site in Visalia, California, Udell's technology fully cleaned up the site for $30 million - a cost that was roughly $50 million less than the original estimate. After the successful removal of 1.3 million pounds of creosote from the groundwater, the site was deleted from the National Priorities List.
Other benefits stemming from SRP-funded research projects included:
- Small business creation: Several SRP-funded technologies have successfully led to partnerships and/or small business start-ups.
- Water and land reuse: Some of the research projects led to cleanup of a site or remediation of groundwater resulting in water or land reuse that may have not been possible with conventional technologies.
- Innovative "green" technologies: SRP has supported multiple sustainable remediation technologies that are cost-effective and appreciated by local communities.
- University-industry partnerships: SRP researchers have successfully partnered with industry, sometimes leveraging industry funds to continue a project.
- Discoveries that translate to other fields: Some SRP-funded research has led scientists and engineers to other discoveries outside the scope of SRP research.
In addition to creating cost effective tools, we found that SRP-funded researchers provide sustainable solutions that decrease exposures, create collaborative research networks and small businesses, and increase our understanding of potentially hazardous substances. Across many SRP projects, we found examples of how identifying and nurturing cutting-edge transdisciplinary research projects is key to developing new tools and technologies that can save money.