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Space program's environmental cleanup could take decades

9:10 AM, Jul 31, 2011   |    comments
Jackie Quinn works with emusified zero-valent iron on April 20. The mixture is used to clean up contaminated soil at Kennedy Space Center.(By Michael R. Brown, Gannett)
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Plumes of carcinogenic chemicals used in the launching of the space shuttles, Apollo moon shots and other rockets seeped deep into sandy soils beneath launch pads and other structures at Kennedy Space Center andCape Canaveral Air Force Station.

They form viscous toxic goo that will take $1 billion in cleanup costs agencywide over many decades, and could bog down funding for next-generation spacecraft.

NASA estimates it will spend $96 million in the next 30 years at Kennedy Space Center, including $6 million this year. The Air Force says it will take another $50 million to get the rest of its cleanups at Cape Canaveral under way by 2017.

"In the past, back in Apollo, the normal disposal of the solvent cleaning was down the drain ... out the back door," said Rosaly Santos-Ebaugh, Kennedy's remediation program manager, the person responsible for leading the cleanup.

A Florida Today analysis of hundreds of pages of Kennedy and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station cleanup records and extensive databases of toxic spills obtained under the Freedom of Information Act found:

•At least 2 square miles of chemically contaminated soil and groundwater, some of the "plumes" reaching as deep as 90 feet, at Kennedy and the air station, where the earliest rockets blasted off. That includes 600 acres of chemical plumes at Kennedy or nearby sites under former NASA control and 1,030 acres at Canaveral.

•Of 267 known contamination sites at Kennedy or under former NASA control, 141 are cleaned up. The other half are either under investigation, undergoing treatment or left for contaminants to break down naturally.

•By far, the most common contaminant is a chlorinated solvent called trichloroethylene, or "trike," and its breakdown products -- substances known to cause birth defects and cancer and reaching concentrations thousands of times higher than federal drinking water standards allow.

No one drinks water drawn at the space center, nor the air station, but federal law still mandates the cleanup, at taxpayer expense. Other potential harm to humans and wildlife is uncertain.

Most of the contamination occurred before federal standards and science caught up with the potential dangers, and today's launches contribute little to the environmental pollution.

Spaceflight was a dirty business. And astronauts walked the moon in 1969, a year beforePresident Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency.

"So we can put a man on the moon, but we don't have all the regulations in place so we can understand the effect of some of the chemicals that were disposed of," NASA scientist Jackie Quinn said in describing how the contamination was allowed to occur.

Toxic solvent in ground

From 1959 to 1968, during Apollo when NASA launched Saturn rockets from Launch Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral, trike went straight into the ground.

An estimated 88,000 pounds of the solvent soaked into the soil and groundwater.

Kennedy's sandy, alkaline soils are thought to neutralize most metals and other contaminants before they become a problem up the food chain. But trike dies hard.

And workers kept pouring it into the ground in the early years of the shuttle program, thinking it would evaporate.

Industry chemists knew as far back as the 1940s that trike could contaminate groundwater, according to research by Steven Amter, an environmental consultant in Washington, who has written a book on the history of industrial pollution.

Safety guidelines for trike were among the first Chemical Safety Datasheets published by manufacturers in 1947, Amter said. They advised users to pour the solvent on "dry sand, earth, or ashes at a safe distance from occupied areas" to promote evaporation.

That practice since has proved ineffective, given all the trike that seeped into groundwater at Kennedy and elsewhere.

Few but chemical industry insiders and scientists who studied groundwater understood the full implications of the early guidelines.

"It doesn't say just pour it on the ground and forget it," Amter said. "It was intended to promote evaporation, not infiltration into the ground."

NASA officials couldn't cite the year Kennedy Space Center workers stopped pouring trike on the ground, but said they did so when the Materials Data Safety Sheets first warned against the practice. Dow Chemical's safety sheet in 1974 and General Electric's in 1978 recommended used solvents be sent to a licensed disposal company.

After Congress passed extensive hazardous waste regulations in 1980, Amter said, trike users should have been aware of the risks to groundwater. "Anything you didn't want to drink, you shouldn't be putting in the ground."

How much, where?

Historically, NASA has spent an average of $8 million to $10 million a year treating trike and on other cleanups at the space center, at least through 2009. Last year, funding for cleanups dropped to $4 million, then increased to $6 million this year.

Since 1989, NASA has spent $128 million on environmental cleanups at Kennedy.

At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where spills aren't just space-related, the military has spent $175 million since 1985 investigating and cleaning up 94 of 127 contamination sites. They've also paid out $15 million on several ongoing cleanups at nearby Patrick Air Force Base.

Florida environmental regulators enforce cleanup standards at Kennedy, but it was federal law that first forced NASA in the 1980s to begin assessing hazards to humans and the environment. Ultimately, they unearthed the 267 sites, most with trike as the main contaminant.

The largest: a 352-acre plume at Canaveral air station's Launch Complex 34 -- site of the 1967 Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts.

NASA, in most cases, can't tell if spills are from the shuttle or other programs such as Apollo.

Solvents foul surface waters around the main shuttle pad, 39B -- a National Historic Site, and the more polluted of the two shuttle launch pads. Flame retardants, arsenic and nickel also penetrate the soils there.

The pad launched 52 shuttle flights, all three Skylab missions and the Apollo-Soyuz test flight. NASA began dismantling the pad earlier this year to clear the way for future, larger rockets.

Most of the trike at the launch pads is stopped from reaching deeper aquifers -- where drinking water could be drawn -- by a natural clay layer about 40 feet underground. But in some spots, the solvents reach depths of 90 feet.

Left alone, all the trike at Launch Complex 34 would take 300 years to naturally break down, NASA officials say. With human intervention, it might still take a century.

Corn oil solution

Traditionally, solvent cleanups involved pumping up contaminated groundwater and treating it -- a lengthy, expensive and not-always-successful process. The dense liquid solvents are tough to pump.

But Quinn's homestyle blender churns up promising and cheaper solutions, using tabletop ingredients such as corn oil and more-exotic substances such as nanoparticles.

In a small lab in Kennedy's Operations and Checkout Building, the same place astronauts suit up before launch, it sloshes iron powder and corn oil into a gray goop.

The method, called emulsified zero-valent iron (EZVI), requires injecting the salad-dressing-like mix into plume hot spots, where it finds and binds to the similarly dense solvents, rendering them harmless. It does the same to heavy metals such as chromium, arsenic and lead.

"The technique works well and it works fast," said Quinn, an environmental engineer with NASA's Surface Systems Office, who developed EZVI along with University of Central Florida scientists.

The iron particles float in oily bubble blobs that enclose the solvents and break them down into natural, nontoxic salts and gases. Naturally occurring bacteria consume the leftover vegetable oil.

"It's totally nonhazardous byproducts," Quinn said.

The idea, which began on the back of a napkin, won its inventors a place in NASA's Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2007. NASA licensed the technology to several companies, and now 16 states and several countries, including France and Japan, use it.

But Kennedy Space Center has a long way to go in solving its trike troubles.

"It's not just a problem that's affiliated with us, it's a global problem," Quinn said. "Environmental cleanup science is a very young science."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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