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EPA Science Matters Newsletter: Greener Cleanups at Hazardous Waste Sites (Published August 2013)

An EPA guide helps Superfund managers reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions during cleanup operations.

solar panels Rooftop solar panels power groundwater treatment at a cleanup site. 

Superfund is the federal program responsible for cleaning the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites, from leaking landfills to contaminated soils at old factories. Superfund sites require a lot of energy to fuel pumps, heavy machinery, heating units, and other cleaning systems. This equipment can emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG’s) and other pollutants. Switching to alternative energy sources for even a portion of these fuel needs can dramatically increase a cleanup site’s net environmental benefits.

Thanks to EPA’s Smart Energy Resources Guide (SERG), Superfund site managers now have the tools for “greener” clean up operations. The guide covers techniques to reduce cleanup emissions in a process called green remediation, and can be used by any site remediation and redevelopment manager. It contains information on innovative approaches and new technologies for renewable energy and cleaner diesel-powered remediation systems.

“At the time SERG was released, no other resource like this existed for application to Superfund,” says EPA Superfund and Technology Liaison Michael Gill, who helped develop SERG as part of a Regional Applied Research Effort grant to EPA’s Southwest Regional office. Jennifer Wang, a student from the University of California at Berkeley was commissioned to research and write SERG, with oversight from Gill and EPA colleague Penny McDaniel. 

The guide presents site managers with an overview of successful renewable energy technologies: solar, wind, landfill gas, anaerobic digestion, and gasification. These technologies convert sun, wind, or waste materials into clean energy onsite. The energy can then be used to fuel cleanup activities, routed to the electrical grid, and be a part of a site’s redevelopment.

With the information presented in the Smart Energy Resources Guide, managers can select the best practices for their site’s greener cleanup efforts. Examples of the impacts highlighted include:

  • Frontier Fertilizer Superfund - site near Davis, CA now treats contaminated groundwater with solar power generated onsite, preventing nearly 120,000 pounds of CO2 emissions each year. 
  • Elizabeth Mine Superfund - Construction vehicles used to build a soil cap to contain acidic mine tailings at this site in South Stratford, VT run on biodiesel fuel.
  • Camp Pendleton Superfund Site - a superfund site in southern CA that used biodiesel fuels in clean up operations, cutting emission of particulate matter, carbon dioxide and other pollutants. 
  • Operating Industries Landfill - Microturbines that powered the groundwater containment and treatment system around this landfill in Monterey, CA when it was in operation were powered by gases collected from the landfill itself. Instead of escaping into the atmosphere where they could contribute to climate change, the gases were a source of energy used to generate  about 70% of the site’s energy needs, a savings of some $400,000 per year.  

The Smart Energy Resources Guide also details the costs, availability, applicability, estimated emissions reduction benefits, permitting, vendor information, funding resources, and success stories for each alternative energy technology. Efficiency strategies as simple as reducing engine idling are covered along with guidance for investing in advanced cleanup technologies for long-term environmental and economic savings.

Cleanup sites adopt greener cleanup practices for a variety of reasons. Gill points out that, “some [cleanup] sites in remote areas are off the grid (e.g., mines).  Renewable energy can be seen as a practical alternative to running power lines or using diesel generators for long term cleanups.  In cases like these, SERG strategies are used almost out of necessity.”

The alternative energy resources found in SERG help advance energy conservation practices at Superfund sites and beyond, and have resulted in green remediation practices across the country. In addition, they have sparked the development RE-Powering America’s Lands, an EPA and Department of Energy joint venture focusing on renewable development. Any site manager can use the guide as a starting point to implement cleaner electricity and diesel practices for greener cleanups.