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Decades of toxic leaks at NASA's Michoud site have cost millions to clean up

An aerial view of the primary manufacturing facility at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

NASA

By MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate | Published: April 9, 2021

NEW ORLEANS (Tribune News Service) — In 1966, as NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility was building rockets to send the first American to the moon, a tank containing 16,000 gallons of a cancer-causing solvent failed. The contents seeped into the dirt and groundwater at the site, and the federal agency has been trying ever since to clean it up.

Until now, the spill has never been reported. And while the tank failure was the most spectacular leak at the New Orleans East complex, a review of dozens of state and federal government records on Michoud show the same chemical had been leaking into soils and groundwater for years from dozens of drain pipes beneath the immense plant's Building 103, which encloses 43 acres of assembly lines, and from nearby storage ponds containing the chemical.

The cleanup problems at Michoud, which have now lingered more than a half century, stem from the 832-acre property's place as a key manufacturing site in the U.S. aerospace program. But they also reflect how unsafe manufacturing practices were until Congress in the late 1970s and early 1980s adopted a suite of laws restricting the use and disposal of toxic chemicals.

Michoud is one of hundreds of Louisiana industry sites that have decades-old chemical cleanup programs underway under federal and state supervision. NASA estimates it has spent more than $15 million trying to remove the Michoud contamination since 2010, when it took over the unsuccessful effort. But contractors operating Michoud for NASA spent untold millions millions of dollars between 1982 and 2010 on a variety of other strategies; NASA was unable to estimate those costs.

Now the federal agency proposes spending another $11 million to reduce the contamination to acceptable levels over the next 30 years, said local spokesman Craig Betbeze.

That's only a fraction of the $72.5 million it has estimated a complete cleanup would cost — largely because the new estimate assumes that much of the solvent can remain where it is. NASA's explanation: "The contaminants have been found only in areas that pose no risk to on-site personnel and there is no potential the contaminants will migrate offsite."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality have yet to approve the still-incomplete plans. But a recent EPA decision could complicate NASA's plans: In November, the EPA declared that almost all uses of the major contaminant, trichloroethylene, or TCE, pose an unreasonable risk to human health because the solvent is a carcinogen linked to a long list of other health problems. That might require NASA to pursue a more ambitious cleanup at Michoud.

Decisions on NASA's plans are likely to be made piecemeal over the next year or so by the Department of Environmental Quality, which implements federal regulations involving the site.

NASA is proposing separate plans for four "areas of concern" at the site. But officials with the Governmental Accountability Office, the congressional auditing agency, say NASA's $11 million estimate does not include these areas because, under federal accounting rules, their cost was not "reasonably estimable" over the next 30 years. If removal of the solvent is required, the total cleanup would far exceed $11 million, GAO analyst Allison Bawden said.

Despite TCE's toxicity, NASA officials insist that the contamination will remain a non-issue for the public and site workers. Shannon Segovia, spokeswoman for the NASA-Marshall Space Flight Center, said NASA "routinely conducts various types of monitoring throughout all our buildings and facilities to ensure health and safety of our employees." She said recent monitoring shows the chemical above regulatory limits only in groundwater that is not used for drinking water.

But some environmental activists aren't so sure, and urge a more complete cleanup as part of a broader effort targeting other industrial facilities in Louisiana.

"There's nothing we can do about the past, but we should clean these sites up to the fullest extent possible," said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which tracks chemical contaminants at a number of Louisiana industrial sites. "And there's a silver lining: This cleanup can create jobs. Private industry should foot the bill for cleaning up the mess it created."

"In the case of the Michoud facility, it's hard to believe the promises of no offsite impacts," she said. "Oil and chemical companies have said this for years, and it's not true. I would ask NASA to publicly release the information on which this claim is based and to clean up as much as possible. A significant cleanup would protect our health and employ people."

History of Michoud

The Michoud site's links to aerospace history date from before World War II, when the U.S. Maritime Commission bought the land to build ships. In 1943, Congress transferred the property to famed New Orleans industrialist Andrew Higgins to build Curtis C-46 plywood cargo planes.

That contract was cancelled in August 1944, after only two planes had been built. But as the U.S. raced to produce an atomic bomb, Higgins Industries was quickly hired to produce parts for the Y-12 uranium separation plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

In April 1951, less than a year after the start of the Korean War, the Army Ordnance Corps took over the Michoud and the Chrysler Corp. used Building 103 to build engines for tanks until 1953.

In 1961, NASA acquired Michoud for manufacture of rockets for the Apollo program. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Chrysler and Boeing built various versions of Saturn launch vehicles in the building. Martin-Marietta, later Lockheed-Martin, began building Space Shuttle external tanks there in 1973.

By that time, there was a complex matrix of underground drain lines beneath Building 103, connecting it to tanks where thousands of gallons of TCE were stored, and to two concrete-lined ponds where the used chemical was treated. Other underground pipelines were used for drainage, sewerage and water.

Between 1982 and 1986, the EPA completed a preliminary assessment of all hotspots on the Michoud campus, and identified 57 "solid waste management units," including old fire pits, a canal used for liquid waste storage, the two chemical recycling ponds and several landfills.

Contractors also discovered large quantities of TCE in near-surface soils and in shallow aquifers beneath and near Building 103 and the chemical ponds. They concluded the source was the 1966 tank failure and the underground pipelines.

There's no record of the spill itself in the Department of Environmental Quality's Michoud files dating from March 1966, and the first indication that EPA was aware of the spill came in 1982, when the incident was covered in the federal agency's site assessment. Nor were there were any local news stories at the time of the spill.

At one point, consultants estimated the solvent contaminated almost 5 acres of soil and an equal area of two aquifers beneath and near the building. Recent sampling indicates much of that area remains contaminated, even as Building 103 continues to be used for construction of Space Launch System rocket parts and the Orion capsule that is to return human beings to the moon in 2024.

The chemical was found at levels that experts call "dense non-aqueous phase liquid," a term scientists use to describe a chemical in its original liquid form, rather than diluted with water.

That was both good and bad news. The dense liquid was more likely to sink into the soil than rise to the surface, where people might be exposed. But it had sunk into two shallow aquifers, one just 3 feet below the surface and the other 16 to 45 feet underground. Before they were contaminated, both of those aquifers contained salty water unfit for drinking.

The chemical sank another 10 feet into a 40- to 60-foot layer of clay between the second and third aquifers. That third aquifer also is too salty for human use.

A fourth aquifer, the Gonzales-New Orleans Aquifer, is another 400 to 700 feet below the surface and does contain drinking-quality water. There's no evidence the chemicals have sunk that deep. The Michoud facility has several wells drilled in that aquifer for use when water from the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board is not available.

A number of other nearby wells also use the Gonzales-New Orleans aquifer, including one at a Folger coffee plant in New Orleans East.

Contractors also discovered another geological issue that has stymied cleanup plans. Before it was developed, the Michoud site was a freshwater wetland. The result is that when water is pumped out, the land subsides rapidly. Some cleanup efforts threatened building foundations, and were halted.

In 1985, NASA's contractors focused on closing old solid waste sites while exploring ways to remove the solvent.

By June 1993, the cleanup had been consolidated into 14 remaining "areas of concern," and in 2000, the Department of Environmental Quality agreed no further action was needed for eight of them. By 2020, the list had been winnowed to four areas, each with its own complicated history.

The tank spill

Area B was where the huge TCE spill occurred, and was underlain by leaking chemical, sewer and drainage pipes.

A recent report the state by NASA's latest cleanup contractor, K.S. Ware and Associates LLC, said stormwater drainage pipes relined in the past to plug leaks were again allowing chemicals to seep in, and the chemicals were leaking elsewhere as well.

According to documents filed with the state, repeated efforts between 1982 and today have failed to remove the solvents, including using steam to vaporize them underground, adding substances to stimulate chemical-digesting bacteria and pumping polluted water out of a horizontally drilled well.

In December, Ware said the plume of liquid TCE is now divided into smaller patches that cover less of the aquifers. Based on those findings, Ware said "the best suited remedial alternative" for area B was long-term monitoring of groundwater in the tank farm and for chemical gases below the slab and inside the southern corner of Building 103.

Two chemical ponds

At area D, two concrete-lined ponds held 1.5 million gallons of chemical wastewater until they were replaced in 1985. The Department of Environtmental Quality agreed in 1990 that the smaller of the two ponds had been properly contained.

In 1997, when Lockheed Martin operated the site, it removed almost 35 tons of chemical waste from the area, the contractor reported to the state.

In December 2005, the Department of Environmental Quality agreed no further action was required for areas directly under the two impoundments. But two years later, new sampling found two large plumes of liquid TCE and concluded it might have gotten there through underground pipeline leaks.

Department of Environmental Quality reports show contractors then tried heating the aquifer to vaporize the chemical. But so much water also disappeared that the ground sank, and the technique was abandoned in 2018.

Ware took over the cleanup that year. New sampling found the chemical had spread to a larger area, but there was no indication the contamination was escaping.

In a November proposal, Ware recommended that the state and federal environmental regulators require long-term monitoring, rather than new cleanup efforts, because monitoring showed the concentration of chemical was decreasing and the size of the plume was either decreasing or stable.

The two agencies have not yet ruled on that request.

Part of Building 103

Area F includes soil and groundwater layers beneath a portion of Building 103, where TCE was used until 1979. Wastes were collected in drains and transported away through underground lines.

Today, the area is home to contractors working on spacecraft component engineering, testing and production. The work area is underlain by a 9-inch to 23-inch concrete slab.

In 2005, samples there found high levels of TCE in the lower and upper layers of the shallow aquifer, 20 to 30 feet below the surface, and it was estimated that between 4 and 5 acres of soil and as much as 6 acres of groundwater were contaminated.

That report concluded the material came from inside the building.

In August, Ware found that at least one underground sampling point showed levels of TCE higher than allowed under state standards. Testing of air inside the building detected traces of seven chemicals also found beneath the building, but at levels it said posed no health risk.

In a November report, Ware concluded "the only viable options" for Area F are long-term monitoring of groundwater, the soil below the slab and air inside the building. NASA also would guarantee that contaminant levels would meet industrial-use standards if Building 103 were ever abandoned, and require planning and a site-specific permit for any work that would include digging.

State and federal regulators have not yet approved that recommendation.

Parking lot

Area G includes the eastern part of Building 103, and outside, a gravel driveway, a lot for parking and storage and overhead piping.

The inside area housed the metal cleaning and plating, solvent degreasing and laboratory testing operations during Saturn and Space Shuttle operations, where TCE was used. Sewer lines fed chemical wastes into a larger wastewater line. Another line transferred wastes to the rinsewater impoundment area.

Those large lines were abandoned in place. Releases from them likely caused TCE plumes in the area, according to a historical summary that Ware filed with the state in February.

In 1991, Lockheed Martin removed a concrete-lined pit in the work area and some chemical lines and TCE tanks. A 55-cubic-yard layer of contaminated soil and chemical line debris was taken to a hazardous waste landfill.

But in 1993, elevated levels of TCE were again found there. In recent testing, Ware found chemical vapors above state limits in soils beneath the slab in area G. Indoor air tests found only one sample with 1.8 parts per million of TCE, acceptable by state standards.

NASA and Ware have not yet made a final recommendation on how to proceed at area G. A 2019 Ware report called for developing a feasibility study to implement long-term monitoring programs for vapor intrusion in the building and monitor the "natural attenuation."

mschleifstein@theadvocate.com

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