A 70-acre Superfund site in north Springfield is the subject of a 13-year-old legal order filed between the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Northrop Grumman Corp. for monitoring and cleanup, and two Springfield City Council members want to know the end game.
In its August meetings, Springfield City Council held a hearing on and approved the installation of three new monitoring wells in the public right of way near the site of the former factory of Litton Systems Inc., which dumped pollutants that contaminated groundwater and continues to require remediation today.
Councilmember Monica Horton said it is imperative to keep hawk eyes on the agreement to monitor and remediate the toxic chemicals in the soil and water.
“There’s no other way to look at this situation than an environmental justice issue, not only for the city of Springfield, but for all of Greene County,” she said before the unanimous vote to install the new wells.
History of the problem
Chris Maxwell, a geologist with Stantec Inc., the company overseeing the monitoring, told council Aug. 8 there are multiple wells on-site and about 15 wells already in place outside of the property that once housed Litton Systems, a manufacturer of printed circuit boards.
Litton began operating in 1963 and produced waste containing heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, primarily trichloroethylene, aka TCE, according to Missouri DNR. TCE was used to wash the circuit boards.
The common practice when the factory opened was to dispose of waste by dumping it on its grounds.
TCE seeped into the porous karst landscape and reached the aquifer that serves private drinking water wells in the Springfield plateau and beyond, according to the state’s investigation of the site. Northrop Grumman Corp., which acquired the Litton site in 2001, has been subject to the Superfund Cooperative Program consent decree. The factory ceased production in 2007.
Residents were not informed of contamination until late in the game, by Missouri DNR’s own accounting, as reported by the Missouri Independent. TCE was discovered five miles away from the Litton site at Fantastic Caverns in 2018, but Litton knew of the contamination as early as 1993, according to the Independent. Missouri DNR first issued a news release about the contamination in 2002, though it told the Independent that individual property owners, residents and workers were informed that an investigation was being performed. Some people who were impacted were missed by the notifications, state officials told the Missouri Independent.
“I can only imagine how frightening the delayed notice of contamination must have been for residents,” Horton said. “This underscores why an environmental study is critical in the predevelopment review process. Environmental studies are a great public policy and best practice for municipal government.”
End game sought
Councilmember Craig Hosmer called for the mitigation to be completed.
“I would like the city to be a little bit more proactive in trying to find out whether there is an end game in sight because they have been monitoring this location for I believe almost 40 years,” he said. “There should be some plan to finalize or either give an all-clear or do something to mitigate, because it seems like the longer you wait, the more chance it has to migrate to other locations and other groundwater, and I think that’s sort of a dangerous area for the city to be in.”
He added that there’s no certainty about how long the private entity that is paying for the monitoring – Northrop Grumman, in this case – can continue to do that, financially.
“I would think it’s to our benefit as well as the citizens of Springfield to push for some sort of plan in the next few years to get something finalized,” Hosmer said.
The measure approved Aug. 28 simply OK’d the installation of three new monitoring wells at no cost to the city, with the wells to be approved by the city’s director of Public Works. Because monitoring is not mitigation, the action did not satisfy Hosmer and Horton’s desire for finality.
Maxwell told council that in his professional opinion, the spread of TCE was not expanding, and he said cleanup is ongoing at the site.
TCE has shown up in the groundwater at the Springfield-Branson National Airport, even though the solvent was not used in airport operations, according to airport spokesperson Kent Boyd. The Litton factory was located immediately adjacent to the airport. When Missouri DNR asked Northrop Grumman to do something about the contamination, officials responded that other companies used TCE and may have been responsible for the contamination, the Independent reported. However, a 1993 Environmental Protection Agency report estimated that Litton dumped 193.8 million gallons of wastewater into pits and sinkholes on its property.
Boyd said the airport receives regular updates from Northrop Grumman on cleanup efforts.
“The report we hear from them is that they’re still cleaning up and that there’s still pollution there, and it’s going to be there for a while,” he said.
Boyd noted that the former airport terminal was right across the street from the Litton factory.
“One reason we didn’t expand to the east was because it was a Superfund site,” he said.
“We could have conceivably bought that property.”
A June 2022 update by Missouri DNR states Northrop Grumman is developing a final plan for cleanup of groundwater with various options being evaluated and presented for the state agency’s review. The community will be involved in evaluating and selecting a final plan, the report states. Public meetings are slated to be held to provide progress reports, and the Department of Health and Senior Services is drafting a public health consultation to evaluate community exposure to TCE in private well water.
A June 2023 community involvement plan posted on the Missouri DNR website states Northrop Grumman will continue its efforts to refine the extent of impacts from TCE contamination, including further work to define groundwater migration pathways through monitoring wells in the Springfield and Ozark aquifers.
The plan outlines tools for communication, including a dedicated section of the Missouri DNR website.
It reiterates that Missouri DNR will host public informational meetings to receive comments at key times during the cleanup process, but no timeline is indicated.
The document outlines actions that are planned by Northrop Grumman. These include extracting and treating water from the Springfield and Ozark aquifers and discharging treated groundwater into the city’s sanitary sewer system, sampling and analyzing private wells and site-specific monitoring wells, performing additional exploratory borings and groundwater grab sampling, and analysis, collecting and analyzing samples from nearby springs and submitting regular reports to the agency.
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