The University of Nebraska and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have reached agreement regarding the cleanup of some remaining polluted areas at the former Nebraska Ordnance Plant near Mead in Saunders County.
The consent decree was filed Dec. 31 in U.S. District Court in Lincoln and is being reviewed by Judge John M. Gerrard, who is being asked to order the university to do additional cleanup work and to pay the federal government for past and future costs.
During the late 1970s and early '80s, the university hauled hazardous waste to the site and buried it in trenches and a landfill, contributing to contamination already on the site from U.S. military activities.
James Stevens, an attorney with EPA Region VII office in Kansas City, Kansas, said such consent decrees are routine in any long-term remedial action. He said the judge will review the agreement to ensure it's fair to both parties.
Stevens doesn't expect Gerrard to issue a decision until after a 30-day public comment period, which began on the filing date. The EPA and the NU Board of Regents already have approved the consent decree.
The ordnance plant, midway between Lincoln and Omaha, once covered 17,250 acres and produced and stored bombs and other munitions including Atlas missiles during World War II and the Korean War. The work left large areas of soil and groundwater contaminated with explosive compounds and toxic solvents.
During the 1960s, about half of the site was sold or granted to the university, which established an agricultural research and development center for crops and livestock. The university owns 8,650 acres, but some of the land is still used by the Nebraska National Guard and Army Reserves or is in private ownership.
After years of investigation, the EPA placed the former ordnance plant on its Superfund list in 1990 and cleanup operations began the next year to remove the hazardous substances, which EPA says pose significant threat to human health and the environment.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lead agency on the cleanup project, has removed all of the contaminated soil where munitions were made and stored. The Corps is continuing work on polluted groundwater, a task the Corps estimates will take nearly 120 years because the groundwater pollution is much more extensive than the soil contamination.
The Corps has found four groundwater plumes that are contaminated, each 2 to 3 miles long and 200 feet to half a mile wide. It also has spent millions of dollars to treat and monitor the pollution to ensure that it does not migrate off the site and affect the Platte River.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the university used part of the property as a landfill to dispose of hazardous waste on the property, including low-level radioactive medical wastes and solvents. It also used some areas to rinse pesticides from agricultural equipment and buried hazardous waste in trenches.
In 2007, the university started to dig up and haul the waste away for proper disposal. At the time, the EPA estimated the volume of the dug-up soil at 1,500 cubic yards, or about 150 dump trucks worth.
"We have spent about $11.25 million for cleanup at Mead so far," NU spokeswoman Melissa Lee said in an email.
The consent decree focuses on cleaning up the landfill, the pesticide rinsing area and several burial trenches and disposal areas. The EPA said the federal government is continuing to incur costs in connection with the "releases and threatened releases" of hazardous substances.
Lee said the university doesn't yet know the costs for the cleanup work outlined in the consent decree.
In September 2013, the EPA selected a remedy aimed at addressing the remaining contamination on university property. Future work would include chemical oxidation, which involves the injection of chemicals into the ground to transform groundwater or soil contaminants into less harmful substances.
The EPA also would like to install a landfill cap and monitor gas and groundwater over the long term.
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