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UT researcher earns $1.3M grant to study toxic cleanup at DOD sites

KNOXVILLE -- Decades of weapons production and base operations have left the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) with a legacy of as many as 3,000 sites contaminated with highly toxic substances.

University of Tennessee Research Professor Jack Parker and Peter Kitanidis of Stanford University have been awarded $1.3 million over three years to find the best methods to analyze and clean up the sites effectively while keeping costs to a minimum.

Parker is a member of UT's Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE) and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Their work will look specifically at substances known as dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs). DNAPLs are among the more troublesome -- and costly -- toxic substances to remediate, and contamination may be linked to human health effects, including birth defects and cancer.

Parker and Kitanidis received the award from DODs Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program. The methodology will be field-tested at Hill and Dover Air Force bases, located in Utah and Delaware, respectively.

Aleisa Bloom, group leader of the DOD Base Technical Support Group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Kyle Gorder, project manager with the Hill Air Force Base Environmental Restoration Branch, will assist with the project.

Once the project is completed, the research group's cost-optimization methods can be applied at the nation's other DNAPL-contaminated sites, which include more than half of the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund sites.

"The history of DNAPL site remediation over the last 30 years can best be described as the history of serial underestimation of cleanup costs," said Parker.

The project aims to produce comprehensive methods and computational tools for making cost-effective decisions on how to understand a polluted site -- a process called characterization -- and meet the DOD's cleanup goals.

"This project will focus specifically on optimal management of DNAPL-contaminated sites, which pose a major problem at many DOD facilities," said Way Kuo, dean of the UT College of Engineering. "The ability to apply and evaluate these methods and computational tools at Hill and Dover Air Force bases will be of direct and immediate benefit."

Kuo said the study also may lead to conclusions applicable to other national policy issues, such as which approaches make most sense in the real world of complex and hard-to-characterize sites.

Costs for cleaning up these sites easily can run in tens of millions of dollars, with larger sites costing many times more, said Randall Gentry, ISSE director and associate professor in UT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

"If Parker's methodology achieves even modest cost reductions, cumulative savings to the federal government can run into the billions of dollars," said Gentry.

Current remediation technologies for DNAPL contamination of soil and water include, among other approaches, chemical and thermal treatment, enhanced microbial degradation, extraction with surfactants, treatment of extracted groundwater, monitored natural attenuation and use of various containment methods to limit further migration.

DNAPLs, which include well-known chemicals such as creosote, coal tar and PCBs, saw widespread use beginning in the mid-20th century and continuing until the 1980s, when monitoring revealed significant contamination of groundwater.

Love Canal, a neighborhood of the city of Niagara Falls, N.Y., has become synonymous with DNAPL contamination. The 10-square-block residential area -- home to nearly 1,000 families -- surrounded an abandoned landfill used by a chemical company as a dumping ground for thousands of tons of various hazardous wastes. The neighborhood, contaminated with DNAPLs and other toxic substances, ultimately was declared a Superfund site and evacuated.


Contact: Jay Mayfield
University of Tennessee at Knoxville

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