Mar 1, 2017

Novel Strategy to Deal with Toxic Contamination: Do Nothing

At toxic cleanup sites across the country, environmental agencies have allowed groundwater contamination to go untreated and slowly diminish over time — a strategy that saves money for polluters but could cost taxpayers dearly and jeopardize drinking water supplies.  The strategy is called monitored natural attenuation, or MNA ... It basically means keeping a watchful eye while natural processes purge groundwater of chemical pollution.  According to Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, it’s an acceptable approach under some circumstances.  That includes when contaminants are expected to degrade in years rather than centuries, and where there is no risk of polluted water seeping into, and spoiling, fresh water supplies ... 
Some advocates and experts say MNA sometimes has been approved in violation of EPA guidelines.  Because it is usually much simpler and cheaper than active cleanup methods — such as pumping water out of the ground and treating it — they say that MNA is being aggressively pushed by polluters at many contaminated sites, often with too little pushback from regulator ... According to data from the EPA, MNA is in use at 85 of 141 U.S. military sites that are classified as Superfund sites ... A separate assessment shows that in 2011, the most recent year tracked, 31 percent of EPA groundwater cleanup decisions involved some use of MNA ... Why can’t the EPA and state environmental regulators simply demand an active cleanup when they think MNA is the wrong choice? 
It largely comes down to money.  The cleanup of Defense and Energy department sites depends on Congressional appropriations, and the amount of available funding is limited ...  Officials at an array of agencies, however, struggled to figure out how to regulate MNA, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency to issue an MNA directive in 1999.  That directive, and the EPA's updated guidelines, state that MNA shouldn’t be applied when, among other things, the source of pollutants isn’t yet under control, when the tainted groundwater is still spreading and when the contaminants won’t break down to safe levels within a “reasonable” period.   
Dan Ross
Fair Warning
February 28, 2017

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