Critical Needs: Waste Disposal

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Water processing plant. Image Copyright © iStock.com/ewenjc
Water processing plant. Image Copyright © iStock.com/ewenjc
  • Water processing plant. Image Copyright © iStock.com/ewenjc
  • Pile of papers in a recycle center. Image Credit:  Antlio/Shutterstock.com
  • Off-loading Plumbrook high-radiation mixed low-level waste (NASA Cadmium Control Rods) for disposal in the Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Site Mixed Waste Disposal Unit (Pit 3) at the Nevada Test Site. Image Credit: NNSA/Nevada Site Office
  • These treatment ponds were built at mines close to the Gold King Mine in Colorado. When water leaves the mines, these ponds slow it down and allow us to adjust the pH and let contaminants settle to the bottom. Photo courtesy of U.S. EPA

Managing Waste to Maintain a Healthy Environment

Waste is an inevitable byproduct of society. Waste types are as varied as human activities themselves, and many waste products are toxic. Protection of human health and the environment often relies on geoscience knowledge to isolate waste materials from people and ecosystems.

Geoscientists translate their understanding of complex Earth systems into meaningful approaches for isolating waste streams and remediating waste sites.

To optimize the balance between resource use and a healthy society:

Assess the safety of disposing of liquid waste in deep wells. This method of disposal is commonly used today to dispose of treated wastewater, chemicals, and oil field brines, but it can potentially induce earthquakes or contaminate groundwater. Geoscience investigations can help make disposal safer.

Understand and minimize impacts of energy production and usage. Energy byproducts include solid wastes such as fly ash, thermal pollution of water from power plant cooling, liquid wastes, and gaseous byproducts such as CO2.

Mitigate the high risk associated with nuclear waste. Large volumes of spent nuclear fuel are currently stored at multiple temporary sites in the United States, and more such waste continues to be generated. A long-term disposal option is still needed for this toxic radioactive waste, and a geologic repository may provide a long-term solution. Geoscientists provide information to help assess site suitability and selection.

Support cleanup of abandoned mines, brownfields, and Superfund sites. Landfills, dumps, and spills can introduce a wide variety of toxic chemicals into the environment. Geoscience provides a basis for evaluating risks, setting priorities for remediation, and assuring that expenditures yield substantial benefits.

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2015-09-21