Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) is an internationally renowned research facility, located on 5,000 acres of land in the middle of Suffolk County, Long Island, New York. The facility is owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
The headwaters of the Peconic River are located on the property of BNL, and the Peconic River receives discharges from BNL's sewage treatment plant. This discharge has been a source of contamination for the river. In the past, river sediments were found to contain elevated levels of heavy metals (including mercury, silver and copper) as well as PCBs and radionuclides.
Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory
The Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor
In the spring of 2000, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) proposed a cleanup plan for the Peconic River. Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), as well as many other environmental and community groups, found the plan to be unsatisfactory. CCE was concerned that the proposed plan would negatively impact the river system, the wetlands and the wildlife. Due to public concerns, the DOE withdrew the plan.
CCE served as an active member of the Suffolk County Peconic River Community Oversight Committee (COC) since is establishment in 2000. In 2003 CCE served as chair of this committee and continued to do so till the committee’s work was completed in July of 2004. This committee was established by the Suffolk County Legislature and was mandated to work in partnership with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services (SCHD) to review cleanup options for the river and to evaluate the extent of cleanup necessary. This process provided a more exact delineation of the locations and amounts of sediment that needed be removed.
The Suffolk County Legislature also passed legislation requiring that a panel of experts be assembled to aid the COC in their work. The COC in conjunction with the panel of experts carefully evaluated various methods to clean up the Peconic River and evaluated five clean up plans put forth by the Department of Energy.
Peconic River Health and Environmental Assessment
The Suffolk County COC, in conjunction with the Suffolk County Health Department, worked to complete a comprehensive health and environmental assessment for the communities surrounding the Peconic River system. This important study determined that contaminants in the Peconic River pose a health risk for children, pregnant women, developing fetuses and wildlife.
A wide range of contamination was assessed, including radiological chemicals, volatile organic chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides and PCBs. The study area included all relevant media, such as air, soil, groundwater, surface water, sediment, aquatic species and wildlife. In addition, the groundwater contributing area (which includes the storm water drainage area) to the freshwater portion of the Peconic River was included. Cashin Associates, P.C, conducted the study entitled, Health and Environmental Assessment for Peconic River, May 2004.
Contaminants found in the river sediments include mercury, PCBs, cesium 137, copper and silver. The study concluded that the greatest risks are those relating to toxic impacts from the consumption of fish. This is due to the high levels of PCBs and mercury in the fish. The risks are greatest for children, but adults who consume a high quantity of fish also face increased health risks. The Cashin Associates fish consumption survey found that some people catch and eat large numbers of fish from the Peconic River and feed it to their families. Mercury is a heavy metal that bioaccumulates in the food chain. The health study provided clear evidence that a comprehensive cleanup plan was necessary to adequately protect public health.
CCE's staff worked aggressively to help craft a plan that cleans up the greatest amount of contamination without destroying key ecological components of the river and provides for the maximum protection of public health.
Peconic River Cleanup Plan
After four years of extensive work a final clean up plan for the Peconic River was agreed upon and implemented. The plan included the following components:
- Contaminated river sediment will be removed approximately 6 to 12 inches down to sand.
- The average concentration of mercury on BNL property after remediation will be less than 1 ppm, with a goal of no sample in any excavated area exceeding 2 ppm.
- The average concentration of mercury for sediment off of BNL property after remediation will be less than .75 ppm with a goal of no sample in any excavated area exceeding 2 ppm.
- Areas that demonstrated to be a significant source of methylmercury will be included in the clean up.
- The plan seeks to achieve 92% removal of the mercury in the sediment, 93% removal of the PCBs and 91% removal of cesium-137.
CCE continues to serve on the BNL CAC where regular updates are provided for water and soil sampling results to assess the health of the Peconic River. Also, fish samples are taken on an annual basis by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as well as BNL staff. These samples are checked for heavy metals, including mercury, and for any radionuclides. In addition, BNL’s wetlands restoration program, where damaged wetlands were replanted, is also assessed and monitored.
Carmans River Study
In 2002 the Suffolk County Health Department and the Suffolk County COC completed an environmental assessment of the Carmans River. CCE was an active participant on the COC, including the Carmans River study. This assessment includes a compilation and evaluation of all historical data pertaining to the Carmans River, as well as the results of a sampling program.
Cashin Associates, a consultant based in Hauppauge, was hired to sample and analyze stream sediment and surface water samples. The consultant tested for volatile organic chemicals, gross alpha and gross beta (indicators of radionuclide contamination), pesticides and heavy metals. The consultant produced a report, which includes the test results. This study provided for the first comprehensive testing of the Carman's river sediments.
The study reported that the Carmans River has good water quality, on the whole. However, to help protect the river over the long term the report recommends a number of management actions including:
- Greater remediation of gasoline spills to prevent MTBE (a carcinogenic gasoline additive) from impacting the river.
- More sampling in an area of deposition in the mid-river, which did have radiological readings and requires further investigation; and
- Increasing population density, growth patterns and road maintenance processes should be examined to minimize additional impacts.
The final report includes an overall assessment of the present environmental condition of the Carmans River and additional recommendations for further actions. This comprehensive study will serve as a basis for future environmental and health risk monitoring programs and add to a greater understanding of the over health and well being of the area's hydrologic system. The report was completed in May 2002. This report is the most comprehensive study of the Carmans River system.
The Graphite Reactor - BGRR
The Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor (BGRR) was in operation from August 1950 to June 1968, for a total of 18 years. This was the first reactor built for the purpose of providing neutrons for research. The BGRR was designed to be graphite-moderated and reflected, fueled with aluminum canned uranium elements and cooled by air. Later, the uranium fuel elements were replaced with aluminum-clad, enriched uranium-aluminum alloy plate fuel cells. The reactor consisted of a 25-foot graphite cube that was penetrated by parallel horizontal channels containing uranium fuel elements. Filtered air was drawn through the fuel channels and was discharged through the reactor stack.
Unfortunately, the original natural fuel elements were subject to stress-related can failures. These failures resulted in dispersion of uranium and plutonium contamination to the graphite channels, the air ducts, the air filters, fans and other equipment.
During past operations, the BGRR contained fuel within the graphite “pile”. The pile is a cube shaped structure, weighing approximately 2000 tons, and is composed of graphite. The pile was used to hold the fuel rods for the reactor. A five-foot thick and 25 feet tall biological shield (called the bio-shield) surrounds the pile. The bio-shield is a steel and concrete wall used to minimize radiation during reactor operations.
The BGRR complex contained 8,094 curies of contamination. Some contaminated structures have already been removed leaving 8,047 curies of radioactive contamination. These radioactive contaminates include carbon-14, tritium, cesium 137 and strontium 90. The bio-shield and the graphite pile contain 99% of the radioactivity in the BGRR. Due to the long half-life of the carbon –14, the BGRR is expected to remain radioactive for 87,000 years.
In addition to contamination of the BGRR, because of leakage during after reactor operations, contamination has also been found in soil located under certain BGRR structures. Pockets of deep, subsurface contaminated soils have been found in a number of locations around and under the reactor building.
The graphite reactor is scheduled to undergo decontamination and decommissioning. This process will remove or isolate hazardous and radioactive contamination at the BGRR.
Currently, the Department of Energy is considering four cleanup options. The preferred option is called Alternative C. This cleanup option will:
- Remove the graphite cube and the bio-shield.
- Remove all accessible pockets of contaminated soil.
- Remove the canal structure.
- Remove a total 8,093 Curies from the BGRR complex.
Citizens Campaign for the Environment was a member of the BGRR working group from 2000 until characterization of the graphite was completed in 2003. This group reviewed the known contamination at this facility and advised BNL on the decontamination and decommissioning process. CCE is also an active member of the BNL Citizens Advisory Committee, which was established to provide community input into environmental cleanup options. Therefore, after careful review, CCE strongly supported Alternative C. CCE believes that a full cleanup of this area was warranted and prudent. Fortunately, many agreed and a comprehensive remediation plan was approved. Currently BNL is ahead of schedule for implementing this intensive remediation effort.
CCE remains an active and engaged member of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Brookhaven National Laboratory. Over the years, BNL has dramatically improved their stewardship of the environment, reducing their toxic output and improving their safety record. CCE continues to assess and review ongoing remediation efforts and any new issues that arise.
Updated by aesposito 4/2/10