The National Academies of Science (NAS) Committee on Long-term Management of Contaminated Groundwater is studying ways to “improve hazardous waste management at problematic sites where the presence of recalcitrant and/or poorly accessible contaminants,” including methods of cleaning up sites “sustainably”. Three members of this Committee (including the author of this post) recently published an article proposing another potential method for more “sustainable” cleanups by forming one or more Long-Term-Management-Only Organizations (LTMOO) to assume responsibility and future legal liability for complex contaminated groundwater sites where it is not practical to attain groundwater cleanup goals within a reasonable period of time. The LTMOO concept is not being addressed by this NAS report because it was deemed not within the scope of that study (the final NAS study will be released in a few months after peer review and final editing).
Since 1994, several NAS studies have concluded that frequently it is not practical to attain groundwater cleanup goals (typically the drinking water standard) within the area where the chemicals were disposed of at complex groundwater sites. Thus, management of these sites over a very long period of time is necessary. Sustainability (which includes consideration of impacts on future generations and seeking input from a range of stakeholders in decisions) may include developing and implementing innovative methods of managing hazardous waste sites to ensure protectiveness over the very long periods of time needed, particularly at sites with “recalcitrant” or “poorly accessible” contaminants.
The authors of the article recognize that many details will need to be evaluated and provided to decision makers, so the authors recommend an expert group (with a broad range of expertise) be tasked with refining this very general proposal. A few concepts are discussed. For example, a LTMOO probably should assume complete control and liability for a site once the remediation reaches the point where long-term management tasks are well defined and the impracticality of attaining final groundwater goals is established, but the exact trigger still needs to be determined. Such an approach addresses future generations, is likely to result in more community input, and allows existing potentially liable parties to consider broader consequences of the cleanup of such complex sites. The goal is to devise a scheme that provides more incentives for risk reduction, achieves economies of scale to reduce the cost long-term management, is more cost-effective, increases public confidence in the long-term management process, and ideally provides a private sector financial incentive to develop more cost-effective remedies that will attain groundwater cleanup goals.
The fact that a group with varying perspectives (albeit a small group) seemed to reach at least a conceptual consensus is significant. The next step is to share and refine this concept with a wide spectrum of regulators, responsible government agencies, private sector representatives, and legislators to determine if a consensus can be developed on: (a) the scope of the task; (b) the form of expert review (e.g., a NAS Committee study, a Federal Advisory Committee review or some other approach); and (c) the availability of government/private sector funding for such a study.
This innovative concept was also the subject of a trade press article published in Inside EPA and Superfund Report.