Two launch sites make for two award-winning remediation projects.
By Ben Frech
It was a clear night in Evart, Michigan, as fireworks awoke the night sky during the town’s annual Fourth of July celebration. The Osceola County Fairgrounds was filled with families and onlookers enjoying one of the town’s most popular traditions and a mainstay of American life—a Fourth of July fireworks show.
As the grand finale concluded and the people began packing their belongings to head home, few, if any, thought where the fireworks ended up or how they may have affected their health.
In 2015, the impact of fireworks lifting off, blowing up, and then returning to earth year after year became apparent. Municipal water wells throughout the area began showing traces of perchlorate, a chemical compound often found in fireworks. City officials of Evart knew something had to be done quickly to solve this problem.
Incredibly, 1300 miles away, a group of scientists was having a similar problem, only on a larger scale. The scientists have been launching their own rockets into the sky since the late 1960s and occasionally even landing them on the moon. But much like the fireworks in Evart, sending rockets into space tends to impact the earth and water surrounding the launch site.
The two stories ahead share much in common. Both show organizations creating soul-lifting moments for their constituents, humans’ ability to dirty the waters under foot, and then take responsibility to clean it up. They both also share a common solution to their problems: award-winning groundwater professionals.
NASA Launch Complex 39B
Mission: Save the Gopher Tortoise
All around you is marshland. The scorching Florida sun beats down as you watch wild pigs, bald eagles, and alligators scurry around in their natural habitats. In the distance, a 122-foot rocket launches into the sky on its way to outer space. Then, you drill another hole in the ground and continue your work saving the planet and one of its most endangered species. This is office life for employees of Geosyntec Consultants.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Launch Complex 39B, or LC39B, (NASA loves to abbreviate) encompasses approximately 170 acres on the east coast of Florida within the John F. Kennedy Space Center. The KSC is surrounded by one of the nation’s largest wildlife refuges, the Merit Island National Wildlife Refuge, or MINWR (okay, that one I made up).
LC39B is a rocket launch site that was Earth’s starting point for the Apollo 10 rocket which sent the second man ever to orbit the moon; Apollo 12 that sent the second team to walk on the moon’s surface; and the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle (which exploded 73 seconds into flight killing everyone aboard).
After nearly 40 years of lift-offs and using solvents to clean and maintain their spaceflight-related hardware, NASA performed a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (facility investigation) in the early 2000s to assess potential impacts to soil and groundwater.
The investigation would reveal that higher than acceptable levels of chlorinated volatile organic compounds had infiltrated the groundwater surrounding the site, which could potentially be discharged into the surface water of the wildlife refuge. The constituents included trichloroethenes, cis-1,2- dichloroethene, and vinyl chloride.
The stakes are always high in the water remediation game because one is essentially dealing with chemicals that might end up in the human body, animals, or lace the dirt beneath our feet.
But even on top of that, this project was also crucial in saving some of the country’s most endangered species within the surrounding wildlife refuge. These include the eastern indigo snake, the Florida scrub jay (a bird), the West India manatee, and of course, the ever-elusive gopher tortoise (and judging by its picture is more tortoise than gopher).
“Back in the 60s, NASA used various chemicals that were very effective degreasers to clean their space shuttles and ther space hardware,” Geosyntec Senior Principal Jim Langenbach says. “To the best of our knowledge, this was the main contributor to the elevated concentrations of compounds in the groundwater.”
Geosyntec is a specialized consulting and engineering firm which was contracted by NASA to remediate the launch site. Because the launch site was still in use, it had to begin its work outside of the launchpad, creating a temporary, yet effective, method of remediating the groundwater before it potentially flowed into the surrounding surface water.
“Our main goal was to mitigate the discharge before it could enter the sensitive wetlands,” says Geosyntec Senior Principal Environmental Engineer Rebecca Daprato, “and after analysis of the area, we decided on developing a bioremediation system.”
A major aspect of Geosyntec’s bioremediation system consisted of drilling injection wells that would pump the aquifer with certain food-grade oils, which would then energize naturally-occurring bacteria within the water and remediate the organic compounds. This, along with a system to bio-augment the bacteria to quicken the process, was put in place until they could access the launchpad.
In 2011, with the end of the NASA Space Shuttle Program, NASA and Geosyntec were able to finally access the site so a full investigation and remediation effort could begin.
Even though the shuttle program had ended, the site was not being remediated to become a historic roadside attraction. It will be the launching point for Artemis, NASA’s new mission to the moon and beyond.
With full access to the launchpad, Geosyntec could focus on a larger-scale remediation effort with the goal of bringing the organic compounds within the groundwater down to acceptable levels.
“We were able to do some heavy-duty investigation work and really find out what was going on with the site,” Langenbach says. “We collected over five thousand samples from our borings, which in itself is incredible, and led to a great understanding of the distribution (of contamination) and issues with the groundwater.”
With 5000 samples, a high-tech and sophisticated mapping of the site, and a timeline of five years to remediate, it was decision time on how to achieve the goal.
The team at Geosyntec concluded the method of air sparging was exactly what was needed to remediate NASA’s launch site in time for the Artemis program to begin. By injecting pressurized air deep into the bottom of the aquifer, the injected air rises to the surface, carrying with it the volatile
organic compounds. Once in the atmosphere, the compound disperse to very low and acceptable levels.
“Our results from air testing indicated no harmful chemicals present whatsoever,” Daprato says.
Geosyntec would put almost the entirety of this air sparing operation into a mobile trailer, which would allow for system reuse by NASA on other sites within the space complex.
Using air sparging, Geosyntec was able to meet NASA’s remediation goal in only two years. Because of the success of the system in reducing concentrations, NASA elected to keep the air sparging system on site and it is still working to this day.
The Artemis mission’s plan is to be landing the next man and first woman ever on the moon in 2024. After that mission is accomplished, the goal is Mars.
Geosyntec, its employees, and the groundwater industry is now a part of that story.
“You can’t be out there (on site) and not think about it,” Daprato says. “Seeing what NASA is working on, and working towards, it’s really incredible.”
“You step on that launchpad,” Langenbach adds, “and it’s just history everywhere you look.”
A history they will now forever be a part of.
“Everything that can be found in the universe on a large scale is reflected in a human being on a small scale.”
Every year, 10,000 spectators attend the annual Fourth of July fireworks display in Evart. The Osceola County Fairgrounds and its surrounding area was seemingly a perfect venue for the event with ample parking, picnic tables, and most importantly, a clear line of sight to the firework show.
Modern fireworks would not be much fun without perchlorate salts. They are used as both an oxidizer for rapid combustion of the firework casing and to create the metal chloride which produces the awesome colors during the firework’s explosion. Without them, fireworks are just colorless bangs and booms.
Unfortunately, according to the Food and Drug Administration, overexposure to perchlorate in humans can lead to a reduction in the production of thyroid hormones.
It would be reasonable to think these perchlorate salts burn away and decompose during the fireworks explosion. But as officials with the city of Evart discovered, that is not the case.
When higher than acceptable levels of perchlorate were found in the water sourced from some of the municipal wells in 2015, the culprit eventually became obvious: the on-average 600 kilograms of fireworks fired annually from the fairgrounds.
“We were actually able to use the city’s fireworks purchase records over the prior years and compare that to amounts of perchlorate we were finding in the aquifers,” says senior hydrogeologist Joel Henry of Golder Associates, an environmental engineering firm hired to work on the project.
“We came to a conclusion that around 2 percent of the perchlorate was not burnt in the fireworks explosion. And then, once the firework residual is on the ground, one good rain and it can leach into an aquifer.”
It is important to note: Perchlorate is not regulated in Michigan drinking water, so municipalities are not required to test for it in their water sources. The perchlorate was detected by Nestlé Waters North America, which purchases water from designated city of Evart wells. Nestlé tests for many compounds that may be regulated by states throughout the country and to meet its own high internal water-quality standards.
Nestlé shared the information with the city of Evart and agreed to assist in the evaluation and remediation efforts.
The remediation strategy to clean the aquifers of its concentrated perchlorate was, on the surface, simple: Pump the water out and dump it somewhere safe. From 2016-2018, millions of gallons of water were pumped out of the contaminated aquifer and discharged into nearby surface water, where perchlorate will dilute to acceptable levels.
Two years might seem like a long time to have to pump contaminated water out of an aquifer, but it is not long at all.
“In the world of aquifer remediation, only having to pump for two years to reach acceptable potable water levels is incredibly fast,” says Charles Andrews, a senior principal at S.S. Papadopoulos & Associates Inc. “I’ve seen projects where they’re remediating aquifers for decades.”
S.S. Papadopoulos & Associates is an engineering consulting firm which was also brought in to help with the project.
The aquifers were eventually ridded of the high perchlorate levels and the municipal wells were able to provide Evart residents once again with clean and safe water.
It is the hope of city officials and those engineers involved that this case can be used to help inform other municipalities of possible perchlorate contamination by fireworks.
“I think this a good lesson learned here. Even us as environmental consultants, we initially didn’t think it could be the fireworks, so it shows you have to be willing to think critically,” Henry says. “We’ve already been contacted by a few municipalities that launch fireworks in their public parks and are concerned because they also use those parks for their wellfields.”
Maybe it is the simplest of reminders that can help the most people: What goes up must come down.
Both these projects went on to be honored with 2020 National Ground Water Association Groundwater Remediation Awards and highlight the industry’s abilities to solve problems of all sizes and complexities.
From fireworks to rocket ships, groundwater professionals have people covered. It’s hard not to see these two projects and get a sense of pride for what the industry can accomplish and the vital role it plays in the world.
The partnerships that the industry has formed with governments, educational institutions—and even space agencies—will continue to provide opportunities to be a part of history and proudly represent groundwater professionals of all kinds.
In fact, in October 2020, NASA announced it could confirm the presence of subsurface water on the moon. So, the next time a groundwater professional steps onto a NASA launch site, they may just be stepping towards their own seat on a shuttle.
Ben Frech is the public affairs and regional public policy manager for the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.