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. Sediment Dredging Has Fallen Short Of Achieving Cleanup Goals At Many Contaminated Sites

Contaminated sediments can be found at the bottoms of many U.S. rivers and other water bodies near former mining, agricultural, or industrial sites. Tainted with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, or other toxic substances, the sediments can pose risks to people, fish, and aquatic animals.
by Staff Writers
Washington DC (SPX) Jun 11, 2007
At many projects to dredge contaminated sediments from U.S. rivers and other bodies of water, it has not been demonstrated that dredging has reduced the long-term risks the sediments pose to people and wildlife, says a new report from the National Research Council. Many dredging projects have had difficulty meeting short-term goals for reducing pollution levels.

Whether dredging alone can reduce long-term risks was difficult to determine at many sites because of inadequate monitoring data and other limitations, the report says. It calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve and intensify its monitoring at dredging and other projects intended to remediate contaminated sediments at the nation's Superfund sites.

Dredging's ability to achieve cleanup goals depends on a site's characteristics, the report also concludes. If a particular site has one or more unfavorable conditions -- the presence of debris such as boulders or cables, for example, or bedrock lying beneath the contaminated sediment -- then dredging alone is unlikely to be sufficient. The presence or absence of such conditions should be a major consideration in deciding whether to dredge at a site, said the committee that wrote the report.

Contaminated sediments can be found at the bottoms of many U.S. rivers and other water bodies near former mining, agricultural, or industrial sites. Tainted with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, or other toxic substances, the sediments can pose risks to people, fish, and aquatic animals. Many of these sites are slated for cleanup by EPA under federal Superfund legislation, and a minimum of 14 of them are sediment "megasites" -- sites where the cost of remediating sediments is expected to reach at least $50 million, or has already done so. Decisions about whether to dredge at these sites have proved controversial, so Congress asked the Research Council to evaluate the method's effectiveness. To inform its conclusions, the committee examined 26 dredging projects, five of them at megasites, and evaluated whether they had attained their cleanup and risk-reduction goals.

Dredging is effective at removing contaminated sediment mass permanently from the environment, the report says. But removing mass may not be enough to achieve desired cleanup levels or long-term goals for reducing risks, because dredging inevitably leaves residual contamination behind. Dredging alone achieved expected cleanup results at only a few of the sites the committee analyzed. At many others, capping -- placing a layer of uncontaminated material over the tainted sediments -- was also necessary to contain the remaining contamination at acceptable levels. Assessments of the sites also revealed that the dredging process releases contaminants into the water, which in the short term can have adverse effects on fish and other aquatic animals and could potentially raise health risks in people who consume them.

Dredging remains one of the few approaches available for cleaning up contaminated sediments, the report says, and EPA should continue to consider its use among other methods. In locations where buried contaminated sediments could be dislodged by storms, for example, dredging the sediments to prevent them from being transported may reduce risks. If dredging is used, planners need to recognize that residual contamination and releases of chemicals into the water will invariably occur; they should estimate the effects of these processes in advance, and employ best practices to minimize them, the committee said. Using a combination of methods should also be considered, particularly if a site has any characteristics unfavorable to dredging.

The typical Superfund approach, in which EPA conducts an investigation and a feasibility study that establishes a single path to remediation, is not the best way to choose remedies for these sites, the report says. Given the long time frames and many unknowns involved in cleaning up megasites, adaptive management -- which uses monitoring data to review progress and adjust plans when needed -- should be used to select and implement cleanup methods. In addition, dredging and other remediation projects should be designed to meet long-term goals for reducing risks to people and wildlife, instead of objectives not directly related to risk, such as removing a specified amount of sediment.

The report emphasizes that without adequate monitoring before and after dredging, it is impossible to evaluate the degree to which cleanup objectives have been reached. EPA should invest in better and more consistent measurement tools to monitor conditions in the field reliably and efficiently. Monitoring data should also be made available to the public in electronic form, so that evaluations of remedies' effectiveness can be independently verified.

In addition, to help ensure that megasites with contaminated sediments are cleaned up as effectively as possible, EPA should centralize resources, responsibility, and authority for these sites at the national level, the report recommends. Such a shift would help the agency make sure that monitoring is adequate and that adaptive management and best practices are followed.

earlier related report
Nitrate in Lake Superior: On the rise
Washington DC (SPX) Jun 11, 2007 Nitrate levels in Lake Superior, which have been rising steadily over the past century, are about 2.7 percent of the way toward making the lake's water unsafe to drink, according to a study by University of Minnesota (UMN) researchers.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is published online this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The complexity of the causes underlying the increase makes it difficult to predict when the water could become unhealthy. The trend is a concern because Lake Superior contains 10 percent of the Earth's supply of surface fresh water.

Although everyone is exposed to small, harmless amounts of nitrate from eating fruits and vegetables, nitrate contamination of drinking water can expose people to harmful levels.

Too much nitrate can reduce blood levels of oxygen, which poses a risk to infants and children or adults with lung or cardiovascular disease. Consuming excess nitrate over long periods of time is also suspected of causing cancer.

A compound made from nitrogen and oxygen, nitrate is a component of agricultural fertilizers and is generated by fossil fuel combustion. Nitrate in Lake Superior has increased about five-fold since the earliest measurements in 1906.

This level of nitrate doesn't reflect either post-World War II increases in fertilizer and fossil fuels, which would tend to increase levels faster, or the effects of the Clean Air Act of 1972, which would likely decrease levels, says Robert Sterner, a limnologist at UMN and lead author of the study. Sterner was recently appointed director of NSF's division of environmental biology, and will be on leave from UMN.

Because of Lake Superior's vast size, the lake registers change slowly and converts other forms of nitrogen within the lake--in decaying plant matter and sewage--into nitrate.

"We're still a long way from drinking water advisories based on nitrate for Lake Superior, but it's not too early to give this situation more attention," Sterner says. "We cannot easily or quickly reverse trends in this enormous lake."

"This study of Lake Superior tells us that if we ignore results of basic research on lakes and the changing biochemistry of their waters, we do so at our own peril," says Don Rice, director of NSF's chemical oceanography program, which funded the research.

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NSF
The National Academies
Our Polluted World and Cleaning It Up

Hong Kong Red Tide Spreads
Hong Kong (AFP) June 10, 2007
The huge blooms of algae affecting the waters around Hong Kong have spread to a popular beach on the south of the island, authorities said Sunday. The government warned people not to swim off Stanley Beach after the so-called red tide was spotted there. The latest sighting takes the number of affected beaches to 15, and local media said the latest outbreak was the biggest since 1998, when 90 percent of the city's farmed fish were wiped out.

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