Long-Term Management of Contaminated Sites: Volume 13


Table of contents

(12 chapters)

A recent National Research Council study estimates that there are now 217,000 contaminated sites in the United States (NRC, 2003a). The proliferation of hazardous contamination across the landscape is an unwelcome if unsurprising byproduct of industrialization during the past century and the ledger continues to grow despite billions spent on remediation. Both government and the private sector are culpable in the production and disposal practices that created these sites. Although most sites are small and privately owned, the largest, and the majority of the most hazardous sites, were created by government itself. This is particularly the case with respect to nuclear weapons production, development and testing, but is also the result of other defense-related activities. These sites collectively contain billions of cubic yards of soil and groundwater in need of remediation (NRC, 2003a). Many would threaten both the environment and human health in their current condition, if present-day management control were to be neglected or lost.

Openness is critical to long-term cleanup and stewardship of former nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities. Openness is especially challenging in such facilities because a culture of secrecy has dominated them since the earliest days of nuclear weapons development. This paper describes a multi-year effort at the Hanford Site called the Hanford Openness Workshops. The Workshops were convened to address and resolve issues impeding the availability and understanding of information important to public health, the environment, and decision–making. Lessons from the workshops can improve dialogue about nuclear waste cleanup and long-term stewardship among regulators, decision makers, stakeholders, and Tribes.

Agencies responsible for remediation and long-term stewardship of areas with chemical and radiological contamination are feeling the pressure to increase public participation in decision-making. Much of the literature outlining advice for how best to involve the public in collaborative decision-making implicitly assumes that there is one best design for such processes.

We report on an empirical investigation into what participants in a process to establish a standard for remediation of plutonium in soil around the Rocky Flats facility near Denver, Colorado think about the most appropriate way to conduct such a decision-making process with public participation. Tapping subjective beliefs and preferences with an approach called Q methodology, we collected in-depth qualitative and quantitative data from 12 experienced participants and agency staff. Analysis of these data revealed three distinct perspectives on what would be the ideal decision-making process for this context. Two of the perspectives emphasized the need to link remediation and stewardship planning, while the third was characterized by the view that these are distinct, sequential activities.

Planners should assume that there may be multiple ideas about what is the most appropriate public participation process for a given situation. Continuing disagreement about the need to link remediation and stewardship can be reflected in disputes about process design. Success should be viewed as a function not only of the design features used but also the extent to which the design matches the needs and preferences of the participants.

The Hanford site, in Washington State, presents a large-scale test for long-term stewardship of residual radioactive and chemical contamination. Large quantities of waste and contaminated materials will remain in perpetuity near the land's surface and the Columbia River, making Hanford perhaps the most complex long-term stewardship challenge among former weapons production sites. This paper explores the scope of contamination, the Department of Energy's approach to cleanup, the likely residuals requiring long-term stewardship, and the issues that are thus raised. Expectations with respect to long-term land uses, the likely durability of institutional controls, and funding, information management, and accountability have long been influenced by mistrust and tension between local communities, regulators, tribes, and the Department of Energy (DOE). Despite positive steps by DOE such as the creation of the Office of Legacy Management, DOE's dependence upon annual appropriations, its sovereign immunity with respect to key state and local land use regulations, and recent policy pronouncements that cast doubt on the willingness to respond to unanticipated problems with additional cleanup, all leave doubt in the minds of regulators and communities that DOE can be counted upon to be both proactive and accessible once cleanup is complete.

Remedies for the nation's contaminated lands must be protective of human health and the environment through time in order to comply with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and other environmental laws. The high cost associated with remediating these lands – between $8 billion and $35 billion to address 15 million acres possibly contaminated with military munitions (U.S. General Accounting Office, 2003), more than $7 billion in 2004 alone for environmental restoration at U.S. Department of Energy sites (DOE, 2004), and uncalculated costs for the private sector – encourages decision-makers to select cost-effective remedies.

Hazardous and radioactive wastes are routinely disposed of in shallow land disposal facilities at sites that have undergone environmental remediation. These residual contaminants, which remain on-site in these isolation facilities, continue to pose risks to humans and the environment and represent extremely long-term liabilities that require continuous management.

This paper draws upon the experiences generated from two federal programs established in response to the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA) of 1978 and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. Operational issues arising at existing sites suggest that there is a need to better integrate the management functions at contaminant isolation facilities. To protect human health and safeguard the natural environment, more sustainable environmental protection systems are required for the long-term management of residual contaminants. A series of logic diagrams are introduced to improve the integration and management of remedial processes, engineered barriers and institutional controls. These institutional responsibilities need to be monitored and maintained by the appropriate site stewards to ensure continued system performance.

In this paper, we discuss methods to integrate ecological resources, ecosystem services, risk, and the transition to long-term stewardship on Department of Energy lands. Three types of information are required about ecological resources before decisions can be made about remediation, site transitions, and long-term stewardship: (1) the ecological resources and ecosystem functions (such as productivity) present on site and their spatial pattern, (2) the ecosystem services these resources provide to people, and (3) the risks from the interactions between people and these ecosystems. Once the ecological resources and ecosystem services are evaluated, then decisions about future land use, preservation, conservation, or protection of ecological resources within a designated land use can be implemented. Long-term stewardship requires both ecosystem protection in terms of biological resources and ecosystem function as well as biomonitoring to ensure minimal radiological or chemical risk and to inform future management. In some cases, protection of ecological resources may be preferable to cleanup that is physically disruptive, provided land use designation is consistent with ecological protection. In such instances, less site cleanup can prove preferable to more.

Between 1946 and 1962 the United States detonated 109 nuclear weapons in an area of the Pacific Ocean called the Pacific Proving Grounds, mainly at the Enewetak and Bikini Atolls in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The British nuclear testing program spanned eleven years (1952-1963) and involved detonation of 21 weapons in addition to a number of smaller-scale experiments (the “minor” trials) in South Australia. In both cases lands that were inhabited by an original people were extensively contaminated by the testing and, following its cessation, these people desired the return of their lands in a condition that would support resumption of traditional lifestyles. Cleanup and reoccupation of the contaminated lands in these two arenas raised similar questions of cultural identity and communication and the importance of cultural as well as technical understanding in establishing conditions for safe resettlement. The approaches taken to resolving these questions in the two situations have been very different—featuring extensive stakeholder involvement in a technocratic decision making process in the Maralinga case and a series of attempted negotiations and claims under the terms of trust agreements with the U.S. government in the Marshall Islands case. Similar questions regarding what constitutes a safe final condition and the means by which safety will be maintained remain in each case however. The Australian case has reached the more definitive outcome of the two. A jointly drafted comprehensive environmental management plan, if fully implemented and sustained over the time periods necessary, could facilitate a semblance of the outstation lifestyle that the aboriginal Maralingan people desire. But what has been agreed to may still prove very difficult to live with given the levels of residual contamination and the many ways that traditional cultural practices put people in intimate contact with the land.

The need for long-term stewardship for hazards is widespread and increasing. Many of the largest and most complex sites requiring stewardship are within the U.S. Department of Energy's nuclear weapons complex, though many “brownfields” and Superfund sites in the private sector have similar needs for long-term care. High cleanup costs and difficult-to-resolve technical challenges are the main reasons why such sites are not being cleaned up to support unrestricted use. EPA policy changes are now redirecting cleanup efforts toward waste isolation and containment-in-place rather than waste removal. This shift is not being matched by a corresponding shift in the conceptual and operational approach to remediation planning. The process logic of cleanup continues to be “single-pass” and linear, via sequential planning and implementation stages that aim to declare sites “cleaned up and closed” once the sought-after degree of waste isolation from the biotic environment is achieved. Instead an iterative and nonlinear process logic is required – one that directs cleanup toward the needs of effective stewardship of the remaining residual contamination rather than toward regulatory standards that support the selected future land use for the site. This redirection of cleanup logic shifts the focus in remediation planning to vulnerabilities and uncertainties associated with long-term stewardship rather than the degree of isolation of wastes from human populations and the environment achieved. Such a shift is needed in recognition that situations of restricted human use of still-contaminated sites are being created that remain vulnerable to failure given the length of time over which stewardship is required.

This paper offers a personal perspective on the author's experience working with issues relating to the long-term management of nuclear contaminated sites, from the programmatic to the site-specific. Long-term care is and will be far more challenging than remediation activities; thus, the dynamics of long-term care require different approaches to problem solving. The need for nonlinear thinking will challenge management that has traditionally relied on linear approaches. Integrated risk management potentially offers some powerful and flexible tools for identifying and managing uncertainties. Managing uncertainties involves not only traditional budget, schedule, cost, and worker safety issues, but also other influences that are not easily quantifiable, including regulatory, cultural, social, political, legal, and “quality” issues. Understanding and incorporating changes in social context is critical to the planning and implementation processes of long-term care; the Department of Energy (DOE) must utilize processes that have consistency over time and that involve the public throughout the process. Management in the long term must reflect an understanding of how human systems function and how they couple with technological systems. DOE's relative success with its Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Program exhibits some of these components. Many are now recognizing these components as key needs for any long-term care program for long-lived hazards.

Long-term stewardship (LTS), the caretaking of hazardous materials, is one of the main unanticipated challenges of high modernity. LTS refers to the process of protecting public health and the environment through the effective management of systems or materials over multiple generations, in some cases over many many generations. It arises from the recent realization that the full remediation of contaminated waste sites is beyond scientific knowledge, best technologies, or available resources.1 Some materials will demand care and risk management over several generations while others, such as high-level nuclear waste, will require a succession of generations that exceeds the longevity of any civilization known to history.

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Research in Social Problems and Public Policy
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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