Rethinking Superfund Remediation

Rethinking Superfund Remediation
​U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ​Tacoma, Washington, USA
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), working with CDM Smith, recently met ambitious cleanup goals at the Well 12A Superfund Site in Tacoma, WA, an area contaminated with dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs) that had plagued scientists and engineers for decades. 

Washington State's Puget Sound, home to some of the most serene waterways in the U.S., witnessed one of the biggest industrial booms of the last century. That trans­for­ma­tion carried a price, one in the form of chemical byproducts. Nearly a half-century of industrial manu­fac­tur­ing and waste oil recycling left behind harmful chemicals in the groundwater near Commence­ment Bay and the Port of Tacoma. In response, the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Protection Agency (EPA) shut off a local drinking water well in the early 1980s after discovering traces of the industrial solvent and known carcinogen trichloroethene (TCE) in the aquifer. The site made its way onto the national list of Superfund sites, and years of remediation efforts ensued with mixed results.

The presence of DNAPLs, including TCE, found within the site’s complex subsurface hydro­ge­ol­ogy made this one of the most difficult types of remediation. Conven­tional methods like "pump-and-treat" success­fully removed some of the chemicals, but the process was slow, and drinking water well 12A remained offline well into the 21st century. For EPA and the citizens of Tacoma, a permanent solution was long overdue.

The presence of DNAPLs, including TCE, found within the site’s complex subsurface hydrogeology made this one of the most difficult types of remediation.
years of contamination from oil recycling
reduction in TCE mass discharge
in treatment cost savings due to site modeling

EPA and CDM Smith introduced a new strategy with three additional treatment tech­nolo­gies, made possible by CDM Smith's research efforts. The pump-and-treat method, called a "groundwater extraction and treatment system," continued operation, while the project team concur­rently ran a new compre­hen­sive, multi-component treatment recon­fig­u­ra­tion. They also paired the new aggressive triple-treatment approach with a contaminant mass-discharge reduction goal, using a mix of integrated tech­nolo­gies to maximize synergy and overall treatment performance. The use of mass discharge set a more ambitious target of 90% reduction in harmful cont­a­m­i­nants and deviated from the use of conven­tional maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) more commonly used in these types of cleanups. 

Deployment and Results

Beginning with a robust conceptual site model, EPA and CDM Smith narrowed the target area, allowing for more localized treatment of affected areas and ultimately cost savings exceeding $1 million. The rigorous vertical profiling inves­ti­ga­tion paired with 3D-modeling of the data helped pinpoint a discrete zone of DNAPL-impacted aquifer responsible for more than 96 percent of contaminant discharge. With a drastically reduced target area, the project team then set out to apply their Department of Defense-funded research and demon­stra­tions to reality.

Having demon­strated that biore­me­di­a­tion can increase chlorinated solvent transfer out of DNAPL, and therefore out of the groundwater, the team added it to their treatment plan. They went a step further, applying lessons learned from another demon­stra­tion treating TCE in DNAPL to deploy enhanced anaerobic and heat-enhanced biore­me­di­a­tion. The remedy ultimately used the following strategies: 

  • Excavation: Completed to remove filter cake and associated soil containing high-concen­tra­tion cont­a­m­i­nants present in the shallow soil.

  • In situ thermal remediation: Boiling and steam stripping DNAPL cont­a­m­i­na­tion around and beneath the former oil recycling building to quickly remove and treat large contaminant sources.

  • Enhanced anaerobic biore­me­di­a­tion: Injection of biore­me­di­a­tion amendments to stimulate degradation of cont­a­m­i­nants to non-harmful end products within the large groundwater plume.

  • Heat-enhanced biore­me­di­a­tion: Innovative combination of low-energy thermal remediation with biore­me­di­a­tion to address small DNAPL hotspots.

  • Groundwater extraction and treatment system (GETS): Continued operation of the original GETS “pump and treat” system. 

The latest sampling results revealed that water flowing to the city’s drinking wells is below the MCL for TCE and other cont­a­m­i­nants. In total, TCE mass discharge was reduced by over 97 percent from the DNAPL source area. After decades of steady but slow treatment of the cont­a­m­i­nated site, remediation efforts conducted in the late 2010s brought the site into compliance with EPA goals and cleared the path for the turnover of the site back to the state of Washington. The Well 12A project team achieved the record of decision goals and made more progress in reducing the contaminant impacts to the drinking water aquifer than the previous 30 years of treatment.

This project represents a significant investment in the restoration of the aquifer to its beneficial use as a drinking water source for the City of Tacoma. Post-remediation sampling and evaluations have demon­strated that the project lowered contaminant mass discharge well below acceptable levels and that residual cont­a­m­i­nants will attenuate to below MCLs prior to reaching Well 12A. Addi­tion­ally, the project has set a precedent for the continued use of mass discharge as a measure of success. Incor­po­rat­ing mass discharge into a project record of decision can lead to more efficient treatment combi­na­tions and ultimately a more cost-effective and streamlined remediation process.

Tamzen MacBeth Tamzen MacBeth
Innovation, multi-disciplined collab­o­ra­tion and increased stakeholder trust will allow the municipal water supply system to meet the city’s increasing water demands.
AAEES Winner
The American Academy of Envi­ron­men­tal Engineers and Scientists (AAEES) recognized the Well 12A Technical, Design, and Remediation Support project with an Excellence in Envi­ron­men­tal Engineering and Science™ Honor Award.
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