Environmental restoration: Beyond Kesterson

Spring, 1993

By Adrienne Kopa

Sally Benson has been involved in environmental issues since 1985, focusing particularly on selenium contamination at the Kesterson Reservoir in California's Central Valley.

Benson is acting director of the Earth Sciences Division as well as LBL's representative to the Department of Energy's Strategic Laboratory Council. The SLC was formed last year to carry out "integrated planning to guide future investments in technological solutions to environmental problems facing DOE and the nation."

In an interview with the Research Review, Benson discusses how LBL's expertise can contribute to the nationwide environmental restoration effort.

RR: What is the magnitude of the environmental restoration problem?

BENSON: The Department of Energy is spending almost $5 billion this year to clean up its sites, and the cost is expected to go much higher. The DOE sites have the same types of industrial pollution problems found elsewhere--contamination of soil and sometimes of groundwater from fuels, solvents, trace metals, and so forth; in addition, some sites have contamination from radionuclides.

In North America, the total investment in environmental restoration and waste management is more than $85 billion a year. Globally, for all environmentally related activities, the figure approaches $200 billion per year.

RR: What is the role of DOE's Strategic Laboratory Council?

BENSON: The SLC, which has 12 members from laboratories across the nation, is the first of its type. I think it represents a new spirit of cooperation among the laboratories, in which all can serve the needs of the nation in this time of dwindling resources and increasing environmental problems.

Our first effort was to define a better way of working together. To provide a basis for a cost-effective DOE investment in environmental technologies, we identified a set of key technological challenges and the cost-cutting technologies that could be applied to them. In addition, we recommended that DOE expand industry and university involvement in technology development and commercialization efforts.

RR: According to the Office of Environmental Restoration and Waste Management, at DOE facilities "there are contaminated soils and sediments of all categories totalling possibly billions of cubic meters." How will the experiences you and your colleagues had in dealing with selenium contamination at Kesterson help in tackling these problems?

BENSON: Environmental restoration can be broken down into three basic steps: first, characterization of the problem; second, design and implementation of a remediation program; and, finally, monitoring to ensure that the remediation program is proceeding according to expectations. Scientists and engineers at LBL working on selenium and agriculturally related pollution have developed both generic and site-specific approaches to all these aspects of environmental restoration.

For example, we have acquired an understanding of biogeochemical processes that is applicable to many other sites and chemicals, such as uranium, where biological processes or oxidation-reduction reactions control the fate and transport of contaminants. Field-scale experimentation, needed to demonstrate and test new technologies, and risk-assessment are other key areas where we have significant expertise.

RR: Besides your own work, what other areas of research can LBL bring to bear on environmental restoration problems?

BENSON: Since 1989, when former Energy Secretary James Watkins made environmental restoration and waste management a top priority, the Laboratory has been mobilizing its resources and targeting areas where we can contribute expertise. We currently have more than a million-dollar-a-year multidisciplinary program, and we expect our program in assisting DOE site cleanup to grow.

Here is a small sampling of applicable research:

It's clear that we can fit our capabilities into DOE's recognized needs.