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NASA Space Science

NASA's Plan To Clean Up Space Program Launch Site Contamination 96

Posted by Soulskill
from the lots-of-paper-towels dept.
Elliot Chang tips a story about plans from NASA and the US Air Force to clean up the areas around the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which have been contaminated with decades worth of carcinogenic chemicals from launching Shuttles, the Apollo moon missions, and other rockets. The KSC cleanup is expected to take 30 years, and will cost an estimated $96 million. "By far, the most common contaminant is a chlorinated solvent called trichloroethylene, or 'trike,' and its breakdown products — substances known to cause birth defects and cancer and reaching concentrations thousands of times higher than federal drinking water standards allow. ... Kennedy's sandy, alkaline soils are thought to neutralize most metals and other contaminants before they become a problem up the food chain. But trike dies hard. And workers kept pouring it into the ground in the early years of the shuttle program, thinking it would evaporate."
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NASA's Plan To Clean Up Space Program Launch Site Contamination

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  • So the disposal method was, let it evaporate? Then instead of evaporating it in a metal pan, they poured it on the ground?
    WTF!?!

    • So the disposal method was, let it evaporate? Then instead of evaporating it in a metal pan, they poured it on the ground? WTF!?!

      If I were an embittered cynic, I might be inclined to suggest that workers, under time and/or budget and/or managerial pressure, were really concerned with making the problem go away as quickly as possible, rather than making sure that the problem specifically evaporated away... Evaporation isn't all that fast, compared to absorption into a porous medium, and evaporation out of an impermeable vessel makes it really easy to see how much hasn't evaporated yet, while absorption makes it comparatively difficult

      • by SomePgmr (2021234)
        That long ago, I'm surprised they didn't just pour it down the drain or right in the ocean. ;)
        • That long ago, I'm surprised they didn't just pour it down the drain or right in the ocean. ;)

          Ever see the Cape Canaveral area? That's pretty much what they did. Poured it into the sand - the water table is a few feet below - after a little while it gets diluted in the Great Garbage Pit (an ocean).

    • by Anonymous Coward

      In the 1960s/early 70s my father owned an electronic shop building specialty transformers for the Defense Department. I worked with him as a teenager doing bench work and wire wrap, among other things. We used "trichlor" as a general solvent for everything from degreasing metal parts, to cleaning tabletops, and yes we washed our hands in it (miraculously I'm OK and have healthy kids...)

      • when I was in the navy we practically bathed in the stuff. I had a friend hack off the end of his finger when we were in port one time and they took him to a hospital off the boat. A nurse was trying to get his hand clean so the doctor could stitch it up and was having a hard time. She asked, "How do you get this stuff off your hands?" His answer was, "You don't want to know."

        Every year we had to fill out forms listing all the toxic stuff we'd been exposed to during the course of our work - trichlor was one

    • by rubycodez (864176)
      interestingly it also attacks the ozone layer. win-win-win, pollutes ground, water and air! http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts70.pdf [cdc.gov]
    • by tonytnnt (1335443)

      So the disposal method was, let it evaporate? Then instead of evaporating it in a metal pan, they poured it on the ground?
      WTF!?!

      This was standard practice almost everywhere prior to environmental regulations being enacted. And not just for TCE. The U.S. Government is paying for contamination dating back to at least WW2 (including TCE -- I've never heard it called "trike" -- among other contaminants) due to procedures like this. I can't really fault the people at the time though -- there wasn't really a thought out question of "wait a minute, where does all this stuff go and what does it do after we throw it out?" back then. I'm sure

    • by RockDoctor (15477)
      Evaporation only makes the problem go to some mythical place called "Away". "Away" does not appear in any atlas or gazetteer I've found, and in fact often turns out to be your neighbour's yard.
      The Cubans should sue but are unlikely to lower themselves to American standards. The Bahamians could sue, and probably ought to. The Puerto Ricans probably can't.

      "Trike", "chlorothene", 1,1,1-trichloroethylene is not particularly nice stuff. It's chemically homologous to chloroform, which is a known cumulative live

  • I live here in the space coast. Back in HS, a rocket blew up overhead and we all had to stay in doors while this crazy looking cloud floated above head. No idea what was in it or what it was, but I figure it lowered my life expectancy a few months.

    No doubt in my mind there's some nasty stuff around those pads!

    • A rocket explosion may have had you inside because of concerns about delicious Hydrazine [wikipedia.org]...
      • When I was a kid, I grew up about 30 miles south of the Cape. We watched a number of aborted launches, watched as the cloud drifted overhead. Never were told to get inside. Of course, those were the days when we just bicycled around the trucks vaporizing some godawful chemical designed to kill mosquitos.

        Probably explains why I spend so much time here on the short bus of the Internet.

        • by rhook (943951)

          Of course, those were the days when we just bicycled around the trucks vaporizing some godawful chemical designed to kill mosquitos.

          That was just DDT, it's about the only stuff that really works for mosquito control.

          • by rbrausse (1319883)

            just? IANAtoxicologist but this [wikimedia.org] sounds - uhm - unhealthy

            • by tftp (111690)

              With LD50 of 115 mg/kg an average slashdotter needs to eat a teacup full of DDT to have 50% chance of dropping dead. A common rat poison [answers.com], for comparison, has LD50 between 2 and 8 mg/kg.

    • by rubycodez (864176)
      was that the Delta II explosion of January 17, 1997? The first stage has both a liquid fuel engine of kerosene and oxygen, and also solid rocket boosters with rubber, aluminum and ammonium perchlorate. yum yum, probably smelled better than a diesel truck with a tire melting and burning on the exhaust pipe.
  • From TFA:
    "They advised users to pour the solvent on "dry sand, earth, or ashes at a safe distance from occupied areas" to promote evaporation."
    Wouldn't pouring it on porous materials cause it to get absorbed and not promote evaporation at all?
    Basic physics would imply that to promote evaporation you'd want as large a surface to air ratio as possible, or am I doing it wrong?
    • by eln (21727)
      Give them a break. In the early days of the space program, in the 50s and 60s, their advice was to use the solvent in place of milk in children's breakfast cereals. The recommendation to pour it on the ground away from populated areas was a huge win for environmentalists.
      • You joke; but the substance was historically used in food-processing applications(solvent extractions of various things, decaffeination, etc.) and as an inhalation anaesthetic...

        Luckily, cigarettes were still good for you at that time, and helped to suppress the more serious tumors.
  • by sl4shd0rk (755837) on Monday August 01, 2011 @03:45PM (#36952258)

    The way the $96M will break down:

    1) Hire 150 people from the unemployment line
    2) Purchase 150 white jumpsuits, boots and hardhats off Ebay
    3) Purchase 150 rolls of Downy (The Quicker Picker Upper)
    4) Announce clean-up effort to media who roll the vans
    5) CNN is ablaze for a week with pics of clean-up efforts and dirty paper towel
    6) Next week, all is forgotten
    7) Split the $94M three ways with other vampires running the corporation

    • 1) Lobby Congress for a waiver to give work visas to 150 people from Mexico and South America.

      Fixed that for you

    • by rbrausse (1319883)

      hmm, don't know, the sum seems incredible low. TFA talks about 2 square miles of contaminated soil, NASA will pay the $96M, Airforce aditionally $50M.

      one area in Germany (5.5 ha size or 0.02 square miles) was decontaminated between 1999 and 2001 (formerly used by a dye manufacturer) - for the amount of €33M.

      either the US is much more effective in soil decon or I don't have all needed infos about this project...

      • by bhcompy (1877290)
        Well, we're pretty good at it by now. Economies of scale.
      • by tonytnnt (1335443)

        hmm, don't know, the sum seems incredible low. TFA talks about 2 square miles of contaminated soil, NASA will pay the $96M, Airforce aditionally $50M.

        one area in Germany (5.5 ha size or 0.02 square miles) was decontaminated between 1999 and 2001 (formerly used by a dye manufacturer) - for the amount of €33M.

        either the US is much more effective in soil decon or I don't have all needed infos about this project...

        The site's geology can drastically affect the price of cleanup -- generally more so than the concentrations. The hard part about environmental cleanup is getting to the contamination -- just digging it all up is very expensive and more in line with the €33M dye site you're mentioning. The NASA cleanup appears to be in situ remediation (as evidenced by using emulsified ZVI) where they'll inject the solution into the ground to break down the contaminant in place. It'll take longer, but its far cheaper, a

    • by citizenr (871508) on Monday August 01, 2011 @04:41PM (#36953062) Homepage

      This is exactly how Exxon Valdez oil spill was "cleaned". They used Hot Water Pressure Washers to "clean up" rocks. It:
      -killed everything that survived the oil (moss, bacteria, microorganisms)
      -evaporated/made oil airborn making workers breath it
      -pushed oil back into the ocean or deeper into the ground

    • by n0tWorthy (796556)

      I think they meant Billion.

  • But considering that's like 1/7th of what it costs to launch a single shuttle, it's really not that bad.

    • by hawguy (1600213)

      Or 0.5% of their $18B annual budget. But the $96M expenditures for KSC will be spread out over 30 years, so it's more like .02% of their annual budget. (though they estimate the agency-wide cleanup costs to be $1B, presumably also in a 30 year period.)

      They form viscous toxic goo that will take $1 billion in cleanup costs agencywide over many decades, and could bog down funding for next-generation spacecraft.
      NASA estimates it will spend $96 million in the next 30 years at Kennedy Space Center, including $6 million this year. The Air Force says it will take another $50 million to get the rest of its cleanups at Cape Canaveral under way by 2017.

    • As cleanups go, this is a ridiculously small percentage of the cost of making the mess.
    • What you should really ask is, what was the (health) damage suffered before they cleaned it up. The statement that they poured this stuff into the environment in the "first years" suggests that it hasn't been cleaned up for at least 20 years even though everybody knew it wouldn't be going away.
  • A prelude to selling off all that nice Florida beach front property NASA owns? Part of the debt deal that it is transfered into some tea party hacks name?

    • by rickb928 (945187)

      "some tea party hacks name"

      Maybe, if they can elbow their way up to the trough. It's pretty crowded already, with Democrats, Republicans, and thieves who don't distinguish between political parties, as you should not either. Thief is not a political subdivision.

      • by lgw (121541)

        Wait, I thought the Tea Partiers were being blasted as "terrorists" this week for not being bought-off by pork in the budget battle. I guess the important thing is to vilify someone on the other team.

        • by syousef (465911)

          Wait, I thought the Tea Partiers were being blasted as "terrorists"

          Everyone knows real patriots drink coffee and like the smell mixed with Napalm.

  • How is future contamination avoided? I skimmed the article and didn't notice anything. Better fuels, motors, handling? Or no more launches from these sites?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Canceling the space program in order to create more tax cuts for the rich and welfare programs for the banks.

    • by tonytnnt (1335443)

      How is future contamination avoided? I skimmed the article and didn't notice anything. Better fuels, motors, handling? Or no more launches from these sites?

      Modern regulations require better tracking from the cradle (production) to grave (disposal.) And dumping it on the ground is not an approved disposal method. Generally with solvents they're collected and recycled, which can mean they're cleaned up and reused, or degraded into non-toxic materials. They can also be containerized (put into drums) and disposed of at special hazardous waste landfills which get extra monitoring to ensure contamination isn't leaking from them.

  • Tidy as you go.
  • by k6mfw (1182893) on Monday August 01, 2011 @04:42PM (#36953074)

    On one of MIT Open Course lectures, http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/aeronautics-and-astronautics/16-885j-aircraft-systems-engineering-fall-2005/lecture-notes/lecture-2/ [mit.edu] where Aaron Cohen (orbiter project manager in 1972) discussed history of the Space Shuttle, professor Jeff Hoffman said on one launch with family members 3 miles from launch pad had to get in the busses to leave the area 5 minutes after launch. Hoffman's brother was a "space nut" and wanted to watch the vehicle go over the horizon (and he was not happy about leaving early). Reason they moved everyone because afternoon launch had smoke from the SRBs drifting toward the viewing site. There's all kinds of nasty stuff and they didn't want people to get exposed to the smoke.

    Thanks to Tekfactory for bringing these MIT courses to my attention.

  • There's been a lot of work done in using microbes that already exist in soils to break a lot of contaminants down in situ. You just have to give them the right environment to do it in. Sometimes you have to add water, or hydrogen, or methane in the areas they're working.

    Terry Hazen at the Department of Energy is one of the people involved in using it during the nuclear site cleanups. It's been pretty successful.

    In the method outlined here, they do it directly by adding finely divided iron, letting it react

  • Look for the total cost to be at least double that. You ever know a government estimate to be anywhere close to the final bill?
  • The headline is bogus -- reading the article shows the costs to be a billion, which to me means it will be much more and they don't really know how much it will finally cost.

  • ...Why they've decided, after how many decades, to start cleaning up *now*? Are they never planning on launching any more missions...like, ever?

    Makes me think they plan on completely shutting down any further NASA manned space missions (or even heavy-lift unmanned missions) for the foreseeable future, or maybe permanently.

    Do they plan on turning it all over to private enterprise, or do they plan on simply halting all further US space exploration, outside of Earth-orbiting satellites?

    If they do, is it simply

    • by necro81 (917438)
      A less sinister and conspiratorial reason might simply be that, now that the launch complex isn't seeing a shuttle launch every couple of months, there's a good bit of downtime to do the cleanup without interfering with launch operations.
      • by BlueStrat (756137)

        A less sinister and conspiratorial reason might simply be that, now that the launch complex isn't seeing a shuttle launch every couple of months, there's a good bit of downtime to do the cleanup without interfering with launch operations.

        One would think that if future launches were planned that would contaminate the area all over again, where's the logic? It's not like there's a whole new class of "green" rocket propulsion tech out there ready to be used, at least for the Earth-to-LOE leg where heavy lift is necessary. Seems it would be a complete waste of an enormous amount of money and resources in that case.

        Most industrial sites aren't cleaned up until the facilities creating the contamination are no longer in operation, like all the EPA

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