OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – Addressing mercury contamination at the Y-12 National Security Complex is one of the Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management’s (OREM) top priorities.
Fortunately, Oak Ridge is home to some of the world’s foremost researchers and experts on the topic, and they are partnering with OREM on solutions that can be used locally and beyond in the U.S. and other countries.
Watch here to learn more about these top researchers and their partnership with EM.
Large amounts of mercury were used for operations at Y-12 in the 1950s and 1960s. During that time, it entered buildings, soil and the nearby Upper East Fork Poplar Creek. Presently, OREM is investing in research and infrastructure that will advance cleanup targeting the complex element.
"Mercury is a really interesting element," says Teresa Mathews, senior scientist and group leader for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
Among its many unique attributes, mercury is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature. It also biomagnifies, meaning it becomes more concentrated as it moves up the food chain. That can present environmental and health risks, and it’s also why researchers are consistently testing levels in water and fish.
Once mercury is in the environment, it’s tough to get rid of it.
"Some of these properties that make it so interesting to use actually make it very difficult to remove from the environment," said Mathews.
Researchers at ORNL’s Aquatic Ecology Lab are studying how mercury flows and changes in the environment and waterways. To track mercury, scientists first had to map out the waterways.
"We had to develop a very specific understanding of where are the hotspots of mercury in the system, how is mercury flowing, what are the pathways for flow," said Mathews.
Their research is leading to technologies that can immobilize this slippery and elusive element to keep it from dispersing in the environment. Part of that plan was sending out sorbents, or materials that can absorb mercury in the environment.
A long-term study is underway. The sorbents were deployed, and researchers are studying which materials have the highest effectiveness after a year.
ORNL has assembled a diverse team to make headway on technology development, modeling and research that will lead to advances in Oak Ridge’s cleanup. With mercury advisories for fish in all 50 states, the work will also be beneficial nationwide.
"We can't just have one set of expertise,” said Mathews. “We really need to be leveraging on the expertise of many diverse fields and that is the strength of working at a national lab.”
Mapping the water flow, tracking mercury and developing models takes all sorts of experts from chemists to ecologists to climatologists and more.
Together, they are working to better understand how mercury moves and changes in the environment. Equipped with that knowledge, OREM will be able to use the right technology to control the element and eliminate it from the environment to keep Oak Ridge safe.
OREM is constructing its Mercury Treatment Facility at Y-12. When operational, it will allow crews to address the largest sources of mercury at Y-12, while helping prevent it from entering the East Fork Poplar Creek and traveling offsite. The facility is designed to treat up to 3,000 gallons of water per minute and includes a 2 million-gallon storage tank to collect stormwater.
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