Sustainable Technologies and Social Costs for Eliminating Contamination of an Aquifer

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Leuna - Image credit Wikicommons user Joeb 07, GNU FDL

Mario Schirmer (Eawag, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) and Horst Niemes (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ) have issued a paper titled Sustainable Technologies and Social Costs for Eliminating Contamination of an Aquifer.”  This paper is a focus article in our Water and Marine Sustainability Month series.  This case study deals with long-term contamination of the Leuna aquifer, which is intended to be restored using sustainable technologies financed by the state. The contamination can only be solved using active rather than passive intervention, because the aquifer has an extraordinarily low natural attenuation capacity for the specific pollutants. Due to the longevity of the contamination source, the groundwater treatment technology that was chosen for the site must operate for a minimum of 20 years but probably much longer. Since the polluter-pay principle cannot be applied, the estimated dynamic primary remediation costs must be accepted as a political or social cost, which must be paid by current and future generations.

The introduction of this excellent work reads:

Large-scale groundwater contamination is a wide-spread problem at industrial sites throughout the developed world. Leuna is one example in Eastern Germany, which was a center of chemical production for about 100 years. MTBE (Methyl tertiary-butyl ether) is the compound which replaced tetra-ethyl lead to increase the octane rating of gasoline and helps to prevent engine knocking. MTBE has been used at the Leuna site since 1981 and was produced on a large scale in the former refinery starting in 1984. The refinery was closed in 1996. During the production period, large quantities of gasoline containing MTBE were introduced into the subsurface by spills during the handling processes or from leaking underground storage tanks. As a result, the subsurface at the former refinery is contaminated with different gasoline components, particularly BTEX (benzene, toluene, methylbenzene and xylenes) aromatics and MTBE are released into the groundwater.

The aim of this paper is to estimate the social costs (or benefits) for a sustainable technological solution realized for the Leuna aquifer, which balances the failure of past activities with the interests of future generations. A huge number of natural science and engineering publications about this serious pollution problem, exist but there is a lack to estimate the social benefits gained by the solutions implemented and in operation at least for the next 20 years.

The dissolved pollutants are transported by groundwater flow. Downstream of the contaminant source are different objects that could potentially be impacted by the groundwater pollutants. The groundwater is flowing towards the Saale River, which is located approximately 2,000 m downstream of the spill sites.

The city of Leuna is located to the northeast of the industrial site. MTBE has already been detected in low concentrations in the drinking water wells being right adjacent to the river Saale. To prevent MTBE contamination in the drinking water wells of the Daspig water works, a protective pumping well 1,500 m downstream of the source zone and 500 m upstream of the drinking water wells was installed.

The hydrogeological and geochemical structure of this site has been investigated in great detail. The main aquifer thickness is 2–4 m and the groundwater table is located approximately 3–4 m below the ground surface. The aquifer is relatively heterogeneous and is composed of fine to coarse sand and gravel. The hydraulic conductivity (K) was calculated from hydraulic tests, grain size analyses, column experiments, and in situ tracer experiments. The mean K value is 4 × 10–4 m/s (medium to coarse sand and gravel), but it varies between different aquifers and ranges between 6 × 10–2 m/s in coarse gravel and 9 × 10–5 m/s in the medium to fine sand areas. The groundwater flow velocity was estimated using water level data, pumping, and tracer tests and it varies between 0.3 m/day and 1.0 m/day. The main flow direction is southwest to northeast. Due to the presence of hydraulic barriers, the flow direction changes within the investigation site to a west-east direction. The groundwater temperature varies between 7 °C and 14 °C (mean 11 °C) depending on the location of the sampling wells and the season.

The economic rationale behind the joint use of the aquifer is based on economies of scale for essential components, which have the characteristics of local public goods because no competition or exclusion exists between users. In reality, however, a limited number of beneficiaries have access to a public good because of natural, technical, economical, administrative, or other constraints. Under these circumstances, a groundwater aquifer has local public or local club good if jointly used for the water supply services of a community and other ecosystem services such as the natural attenuation potential.

The hydrogeological characters of an aquifer are considered as local public good. This local public good has also the characteristics of a natural capital stock variable which should be maintained and protected. The recharged and extracted water of the aquifer, however, is a flow variable which has private good characteristics but also belonging to the basic right, which is not a commodity in economic terms that can be bought and sold.

In economic theory, the handling of public goods is independent of its specific type. Samuelson and Musgrave derived optimal conditions for public goods and expenditures on a governmental level. The sum of marginal benefits for each of the consumers must be equal to the total marginal benefit of the offered public good. Tiebout, however, showed that the optimal amounts of local public goods in different locations, which are in competition to attract people to one location, can only be achieved under less realistic and more extreme assumptions.

In this context, some specific patterns of the MTBE-contaminated aquifer at Leuna must be discussed. The decisions made after the unification of West and East Germany clarified the responsibility for the rehabilitation measures. It was decided that the economy of East Germany had to be reactivated. This site in particular, which was and is now again one of the main chemical industry centers, should not be hindered by social costs normally paid in accordance with the polluter-pay-principle. The publicly owned agency “Landesanstalt für Altlastenfreistellung des Landes Sachsen-Anhalt” (LAF) (State Agency for Redemption of Liability Saxony-Anhalt) was established by law on 25.10.1999. It was declared responsible for solving these contamination problems over the coming decades with the financial resources of the public community, but almost free of charge for the private companies settling at this site and at other sites within Saxony-Anhalt.

Read the full article in PDF format by clicking here.

Citation: Schirmer, M.; Niemes, H. Sustainable Technologies and Social Costs for Eliminating Contamination of an Aquifer. Sustainability 2010, 2, 2219-2231

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