The job of cleaning up contaminated land in the Pacific Southwest often rests with EPA’s Waste and Superfund Divisions. From complex sites requiring comprehensive cleanup to emergency responses and homeland security, EPA is prepared to respond.
In addition to cleaning up some of the nation’s most contaminated sites, EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region has been at the forefront of utilizing innovative techniques and approaches. Many cleanups involve transporting large amounts of contaminated soil or pumping large volumes of groundwater. Recent innovations are reducing the environmental “footprint” of these operations by using biodiesel-powered equipment, solar power for pumps, and new methods that leave soil and groundwater in place.
Another first in the Pacific Southwest is an innovative partnership between EPA, the Department of Defense (DOD) and a private developer planning to concurrently clean up and redevelop a portion of the closed McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, with DOD funding and EPA oversight.
EPA emergency responders were busy in 2007, with a major national terrorist attack simulation, Southern California’s most destructive wildfire season, and a major oil spill in San Francisco Bay. In addition to participating in frequent drills and unplanned disasters, responders like Harry Allen are working to clean up urgent health threats like radioactive soil from uranium mining on Navajo lands.
Cleaner Cleanups Reduce Local, Global Impacts
Cleaning up toxic sites takes energy, often requiring equipment like diesel trucks and bulldozers, which can add pollutants to the air even as contaminated soil and groundwater are being removed or cleaned. Groundwater treatment systems require electric power, adding to the environmental impact.
In 2007, however, EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region launched the Cleanup Clean Air initiative, a pilot project to demonstrate ways to reduce air emissions at cleanup sites. Results thus far show promise for these techniques to be used on a broad scale.
Cleanup Clean Air encourages diesel emission and greenhouse gas reduction technologies, emphasizing:
- Clean diesel equipment
- Alternative fuels
- Energy efficiency
- Renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, and methane from waste
- Carbon sequestration, such as trees planted in parks
At the Pemaco Superfund site at Maywood in Southern California, photovoltaic solar panels were installed to provide power to run vacuum pumps that draw contaminants out of the soil and groundwater. The electricity is also used to heat the soil and vaporize contaminants, making them easier to collect and treat.
The solar panels produce about 4,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. If this power had come from a fossil-fuel-burning power plant, it would have accounted for 4,311 lbs. of CO2 emissions.
At Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base between San Diego and Los Angeles, cleanup crews are using clean diesel technologies, construction equipment retrofitted with pollution controls, ultra low-sulfur diesel fuel, and biofuels in six vehicles that are removing 120,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. By using cleaner vehicles and fuels, the Marine Corps and Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest are reducing particulate emissions from the cleanup by 27%. In addition, most of the soil will be hauled out by train, keeping 6,250 trucks off Southern California freeways—saving energy, reducing diesel emissions, and reducing traffic.
At the Pemaco Superfund site in Southern California, solar panels help power vacuum pumps that draw contaminants out of the soil and groundwater.
At the Romic hazardous waste facility in East Palo Alto, Calif., soil and groundwater are contaminated with volatile organic compounds like dry cleaning solvents, paint thinners, and chemicals used in making computer chips. Here, an innovative treatment involving cheese whey and molasses is showing promise. The molasses and whey are pumped into the subsurface, allowing natural bacteria to proliferate by providing a food source. The bacteria break down as much as 99% of the contamination into CO2, water and salt—using very little energy. EPA has proposed using this method for the entire site.
A similar in-situ bioremediation method has already been successful at the Selma Superfund site near Fresno, Calif. There, EPA greatly reduced the chromium contamination in groundwater by injecting molasses into the ground. In the most heavily contaminated area, chromium levels dropped from 80,000 parts per billion to undetectable levels in just three weeks. Molasses injection elsewhere on the site is expected to speed up the groundwater cleanup from 75 years to just five.
By replacing the traditional treatment system, EPA will save an estimated $32 million, while cutting chemical use by a third, transportation for off-site disposal by half, and electricity use by 215,000 kilowatt-hours annually, preventing 368,000 pounds of CO2 emissions into the air each year for 75 years.
Emergency Response Put to the Test in 2007
In October 2007, EPA’s Emergency Response teams in the Pacific Southwest and Northwest Regions played a central role in “TOPOFF 4,” a simulated national emergency involving the intentional release of radiation from “dirty bombs” in Phoenix, the island of Guam, and Portland, Ore. Close to 15,000 people from federal, state and local agencies participated, including 90 from EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office.
The exercise proved timely. Two days after it ended, many of the same people were called into action at the biggest outbreak of wildfires in Southern California history. And before the post-fire cleanups were finished, a major oil spill occurred in San Francisco Bay, not far from EPA’s regional office in downtown San Francisco.
These back-to-back crises proved the value of preparedness exercises like TOPOFF 4. In emergencies, people from many different agencies must be prepared to work together under a unified command structure. For nearly a week during TOPOFF 4, EPA’s regional Emergency Operations Center was staffed around the clock, constantly updating field crews and EPA managers, and coordinating EPA’s efforts with other agencies.
The exercise simulated how EPA emergency response personnel would work with federal, state and local responders in assessing the type, extent and danger of radiological contamination. The data collected would inform decisions about risk to the general public, evacuation decisions and decontamination.
“It’s just like in sports—you have to practice if you want to be good at it,” says Steve Calanog, EPA’s regional chief of Emergency Response. Thanks to exercises like TOPOFF 4, he says, government agencies responded well to the Southern California fires, including the evacuation of about 1.5 million people from the San Diego area, the second-largest peacetime evacuation in U.S. history (Hurricane Katrina caused the largest in 2005).
In any emergency, local agencies—fire departments and police forces—are the first responders. State and federal agencies like EPA are the “second responders,” called in by local agencies if needed. EPA’s approach to these kinds of emergencies is spelled out in the National Response Framework. In case of a major natural disaster, EPA would respond as called upon by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, often addressing hazardous debris and impacts on water infrastructure.
Responding to Wildfires
In the Southern California fires, EPA’s early role was primarily to help other agencies monitor air pollutants from the fires. An EPA aircraft known as ASPECT, which has infrared monitoring equipment that can detect air pollutants remotely, was brought in to survey the wildfire areas and measure and map airborne contaminants. After the fires passed through an area, EPA staff and contractors collected and disposed of household hazardous waste in the ruins, including paint, propane tanks, solvents, cleaners, pesticides, and unknowns—such as chemical containers and aerosol cans whose labels had been burned off in the fires.
In three weeks, EPA cleared 2,700 properties of hazardous waste in the wake of the Southern California fires.
EPA personnel and partners responding to the fires included 110 people, about one-fourth of them EPA employees, and the rest cleanup contractors and members of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Pacific Strike Team. They found that some chemicals were incinerated by high temperatures or transformed into less toxic gases like CO2. In three weeks, they cleared 2,700 properties of hazardous waste.
Assisting Oil Spill Response
On November 7, while the post-fire cleanup was still in progress, a container ship hit a support structure of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco Bay and leaked 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel oil. For spills in open water, the U.S. Coast Guard is the first responder.
However, when the Coast Guard called for assistance, EPA responded. All together, 30 EPA employees helped with the cleanup, from On-Scene Coordinator Harry Allen IV (see story, p. 23)—who developed a plan for enlisting, training and deploying volunteers for beach cleanups—to Jim Vreeland, an EPA congressional liaison who was deployed for nearly six weeks as incident liaison officer.
EPA’s emergency responders must be ready to go on a moment’s notice, and willing to put in 12- to 16-hour days for weeks at a time. In its biggest response ever, EPA sent hundreds of individuals to assist in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, including nearly 10% of regional staff in the Pacific Southwest.
One of the likeliest scenarios for the next major natural disaster in the region is an earthquake. Seismologists predict a major quake will occur by 2030 on the Hayward Fault, which runs through several cities on the east side of San Francisco Bay. In a 2006 exercise simulating a major earthquake on the fault, EPA and other agencies practiced dealing with myriad simultaneous emergencies like fires at chemical plants, fuel pipeline breaks, leaks at oil refineries, and sewage treatment plant breakdowns.
Whether it will be an earthquake or other disaster, emergency responders from all across the region will be ready.
Halaco Cleanup Underway Alongside Ormond Beach Lagoon
The juxtaposition is startling: A sunny Southern California beach, an extensive tidal wetland teeming with wildlife, and an abandoned smelter with a huge pile of toxic waste. EPA took action to stabilize the site and limit its impacts on people and wildlife even before officially putting the Halaco site in Oxnard, Calif., on the Superfund National Priorities List in September 2007.
Halaco Engineering Co. operated a low-tech smelter on the beachfront site from 1965 to 2004, melting down scrap metal to recover valuable aluminum, magnesium and zinc. Over the years, Halaco generated a 26-acre pile of waste and contaminated the soil, sediments, surface water and groundwater in and around the site with toxic metals and hazardous chemicals.
The Ormond Beach Lagoon adjacent to the site is one of the largest remaining tidal wetlands along California’s South Coast. The region’s coastal wetlands are the focus of a major land acquisition and wetlands restoration effort and home to several endangered or threatened species, including birds like the western snowy plover and the California least tern. EPA is working with the California Coastal Conservancy and local activists to coordinate cleanup and restoration efforts. Soil and sediment samples from the site show contamination from barium, beryllium, copper, chromium and radioactive thorium.
In 2006, EPA worked with one of the site owners to remove drums of hazardous chemicals that were left on the site after the bankrupt smelter shut down. Last year, EPA stabilized the massive waste pile to prevent rain and wind from scattering its toxic material into the wetland and adjacent properties. EPA also removed waste that was already in the wetland and improved security at the smelter site to discourage people from entering the hazardous property.
In September 2007, EPA held a community meeting in Oxnard to update city residents on the contaminants present at the site, the risks, and EPA’s progress on developing a comprehensive cleanup plan. Sites like this can sometimes take years to clean up, but EPA is expeditiously moving forward, ensuring the protection of this unique coastal area.
Revitalizing McClellan and Fort Ord Superfund Sites
EPA, the Department of Defense, and local interests have begun cleaning up portions of the McClellan Air Force Base and Fort Ord Superfund sites, through unique partnerships that accelerate cleanup and redevelopment. These two “privatized cleanups” of military Superfund sites are the first of their kind in the nation.
The Defense Department is funding the work at McClellan in Sacramento County and Fort Ord in Monterey County in California. But local interests are conducting the work in order to coordinate cleanup and redevelopment.
In Sacramento County, developer McClellan Business Park is using $11.2 million from the U.S. Air Force to clean up a 62-acre parcel that is slated for redevelopment expected to bring in 1,200 new jobs and $600,000 in new tax revenues annually. The agreement allowing this novel arrangement was approved in August 2007 by EPA, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the Regional Water Quality Control Board, Sacramento County and McClellan Business Park.
“The framework of this project serves as a model for similar revitalization projects at closing military bases across the nation,” says Keith Takata, director of EPA’s regional Superfund Division. “Combining redevelopment needs with cleanup efforts will help move these properties back into productive reuse.”
The first step in cleaning up the 62-acre section of McClellan is a thorough investigation of soil contamination, which is now underway. Next, EPA will draft a preferred cleanup option for public review and comment and select the final remedy. The developer will carry out the selected remedy with EPA and state oversight.
The 62 acres is part of the 3,000-acre former base, which has more than 300 sites contaminated with solvents, metals and other hazardous wastes resulting from aircraft maintenance and other industrial activities in decades past. The base closed in 2001. The Air Force has groundwater cleanup underway already, using a network of more than 600 extraction and monitoring wells.
At Fort Ord, on the California Coast near Monterey, it’s a similar story. The base, which was placed on the Superfund National Priorities List in 1990, was closed in 1994. In the 1990s the Army, in consultation with EPA and Cal/EPA, was successful in addressing a wide range of environmental contamination, including fuel spills, disposal sites such as a 150-acre landfill, small arms ranges in sand dunes near the beach, and several contaminated groundwater plumes. However, approximately 6,000 acres, used for firing ranges in the center of the base, remain heavily contaminated with unexploded ordnance. The Army will be responsible for cleaning up this acreage.
In May 2007, EPA, the Army and Cal/EPA agreed to transfer about 3,500 acres of the roughly 28,000-acre base to the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA) under the privatization plan. As part of the plan, the Army provides FORA approximately $100 million to conduct additional investigations to ensure that the area has no contamination or unexploded ordnance remaining.
Harry Allen IV:
Cleanup Is a Family Tradition
Harry Allen IV and his father hold a unique distinction: They’re both EPA emergency responders. Harry Allen III, who works in EPA’s Environmental Response Team office in New Jersey, worked on the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska in 1989. Harry IV has been working in the Pacific Southwest Region since 2002.
Over the past few years, the father-and-son team has been collaborating on bioremediation—the use of bacteria to break down toxic contaminants in the environment. Dad provides the recipe, and son mixes it up and applies it to site cleanups.
This technique works well on cleaning up soil contamination from hydrocarbon-based pesticides like toxaphene, which was used extensively to kill fleas on sheep on the Navajo Nation decades ago, leaving the soil contaminated.
Back in 1994, when Harry IV was a first-year environmental science student at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, Harry III took him along on a trip to the Navajo Nation to supervise bioremediation of toxaphene-contaminated sites. Harry IV met the Navajo Nation EPA staff, learned about the field work firsthand, and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.
After graduation, he got a job with Weston Solutions, a contractor that provides support for Superfund cleanups nationwide. For three years he worked on EPA Superfund cleanups in New York, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico. The company transferred him to California in 2001, and in 2002 he joined the Pacific Southwest Region as an EPA employee.
Today, he’s working with EPA colleague Andy Bain and some of the same Navajo Nation EPA staff on removing radioactive waste rock from abandoned uranium mines that has been dumped around homes on Navajo land. Elsewhere, Harry has been using compost from biosolids (sewage sludge) to stabilize heavy metals in mine waste.
If it sounds contradictory to use one potential pollutant to clean up another, Harry has the scientific explanation to prove that it works. Put simply, the organic materials in the compost absorb the metals, decreasing their solubility, and effectively detoxifying them. Meanwhile the compost is an effective plant fertilizer, which helps to grow plants on slopes consisting of abandoned mine waste, helping to prevent erosion. If the mine waste is acidic, as it usually is, Harry adds limestone, which is alkaline, to balance the pH. Then water can’t leach acidic metals out of the rocks and pollute streams. If it contains lead, he adds phosphates, a mineral fertilizer that binds with lead.
Recently, Harry co-authored an EPA scientific paper on this topic titled “Use of Soil Amendments for Remediation, Revitalization and Reuse.” The technique was originally developed to clean up acid mine drainage from coal mines in the Eastern U.S., and has also been used in the Rocky Mountains. The paper outlined additional environmental benefits of amending soils to treat contamination. On-site treatment of waste rock from mines doesn’t require excavating and transporting huge amounts of heavy material, which saves energy and prevents air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In another industrial setting, the technique even helps to safely get rid of an unwanted byproduct of sugar beet processing—lime.
In addition to working on Superfund cleanups, Harry took classes to obtain a Master’s degree in Environmental Management at the University of San Francisco. Today, he teaches two classes in the same program: Soil Science Treatment and Technology, and Environmental Statistics. Why take on the extra work? “Sharing my knowledge is fun,” he says.