More than $100 million was saved through the adoption of tools supported by the Superfund Research Program (SRP), according to a commentary published June 15 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The tools also led to additional benefits to society, including hazardous substance remediation and site monitoring.
The authors of the new commentary focused on methods that reduce the amount and toxicity of hazardous substances. They found both economic and societal benefits. “We have found examples of SRP-funded research that directly yielded cost saving of tens of millions of dollars and reduced exposures in a sustainable way,” said lead author William Suk, Ph.D., SRP director.
“The examples we present unfolded over decades,” he added. “They show how nurturing cutting-edge transdisciplinary research projects is crucial to developing new tools and technologies that could save money.”
From research to application
To describe how SRP-supported projects transitioned from the lab to the field, the authors presented five case studies that used an SRP-funded tool. These projects saved money even as they reduced exposures to potentially hazardous substances.
For each case study, the authors analyzed cost estimates included in the remediation plans, which compared several approaches. They also analyzed previous estimates by those responsible for site cleanup.
For example, Kent Udell, Ph.D., formerly at the University of California, Berkeley SRP Center and now at the University of Utah, developed a quicker method of removing contaminants such as trichloroethylene from groundwater by injecting steam underground. At the Southern Edison Superfund site in Visalia, California, Udell’s technology fully cleaned up the site for $30 million — a cost that was roughly $50 million less than the original estimate.
Another case study described how researchers discovered that the Methylibium petroleiphilum PM1 bacterial strain could completely degrade a contaminant called methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). A team led by Kate Scow, Ph.D., at the University of California, Davis SRP Center, determined that changing environmental factors, such as adding more oxygen, could stimulate PM1 activity.
In collaboration with an engineering firm, the scientists applied their method at the North Hollywood Tesoro Petroleum site in California. The new approach led to an estimated $14 to $21 million in cost savings. Furthermore, it decreased the groundwater MTBE low enough levels that the treated water could be returned to a drinking water aquifer.
Identifying benefits and considerations
Beyond the cost savings achieved by these new technologies, the commentary authors also described benefits to society. These societal benefits included reducing exposures to potentially hazardous substances, reusing land and water, creating small businesses, and stimulating new university-industry partnerships.
Researchers faced challenges in moving their technologies into the marketplace, according to the analysis. Furthermore, tracking how research moved from initial use in the field to additional applications involved certain difficulties.
The analysis underscored the importance of refining the research evaluation process and making connections from fundamental knowledge to real-world applications. The findings documented in the new paper resulted from research and interviews with 28 SRP-supported researchers and 41 partners.
Citation: Suk WA, Heacock ML, Trottier BA, Amolegbe SM, Avakian MD, Henry HF, Carlin DJ, Reed LG. 2018. Assessing the economic and societal benefits of SRP-funded research. Environ Health Perspect 126(6):065002.
(Sara Amolegbe is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)