NASA’s Costly Toxic Legacy: Space Agency Faces at Least $1.9 Billion in Environmental Liabilities

Santa Susana Field Laboratory in California.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA faces at least $1.9 billion in environmental clean up and restoration costs at its far-flung network of centers, an amount that has increased $724 million, or 61 percent, since 2014, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

While five of 14 centers where chemical contamination exists have decreased their cleanup liability, other centers such as Kennedy Space Center, Ames Research Center and the White Sands Test Facilities have seen increased costs from 2014 to 2019.

The largest increase involves the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in California, which has seen a rise of $502.4 million. The total cost to clean up contaminated soil at the site, where rocket engine tests were conducted from 1948 to 2006, is now estimated at $798.7 billion.

“Contaminants from these products include volatile organic compounds (VOC), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), and other compounds that can be harmful to the human body if enough of the contaminant to cause injury enters the body,” the report said. “With significant exposure, some VOCs can affect the nervous system, while others affect internal organs. The effect of chemicals such as PCBs on human health vary, depending on the significance of exposure.”

In 2010, NASA signed an administrative order with the state of California to restore the site to background standard, which means returning it to its natural state before the contaminants were introduced. At the time, the state of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) had not defined the standard for cleanup. The department completed that task in 2013.

Last year, NASA completed a supplemental environment impact statement (SEIS) that said the space agency’s preferred to restore Santa Susana to the less rigorous Suburban Residential Standard.

NASA says the lower standard would protect human health while saving the agency approximately $355 million by significantly reducing the amount of soil that would need to be excavated for disposal. It would also limit redevelopment of the property.

“NASA anticipates that land at Santa Susana Field Laboratory will be restricted for use and development in the future, so the Suburban Residential Standard represents a conservative potential land use scenario, according to NASA. NASA also cited several technical and logistical challenges with cleaning the soil to a Background Standard,” the GAO report stated.

California opposes the plan, which conflicts with what the space agency agreed to a decade ago.

“DTSC stated that NASA should have considered alternatives for how it could comply with the Administrative Order in the least impactful manner rather than considering alternatives that do not comply with the requirements of the Administrative Order,” the report said. “DTSC also disagreed with NASA’s discussion in the SEIS of the technical and logistical difficulties it faced in cleaning soil to a Background Standard.”

Following Santa Susana, NASA’s other most expensive clean-up bills include:

  • White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, $297.9 million,
  • Kennedy Space Center in Florida, $197 million,
  • Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama $108.5 million,
  • Ames Research Center in California, $64.8 million, and
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, $56.1 million.

“NASA officials said they have obligated $124 million toward projects included in their $1.7 billion reported environmental liabilities, leaving $1.6 billion in estimated environmental liabilities that will need to be funded in the future, the report said. “Of the $1.6 billion in unfunded environmental liabilities, nearly 80 percent is concentrated in three centers: Santa Susana Field Laboratory, White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, and Kennedy Space Center.”

Kennedy Space Center’s environmental liabilities grew by $53 million between 2014 and 2019, an increase of 37 percent.

“The Kennedy Space Center’s growth in environmental liabilities occurred because, in 2015, NASA officials changed the way they estimated costs for a complex cleanup project at Launch Complex 34, a 125-acre site heavily contaminated with TCE [trichloroethylene], according to officials,” the report stated.

Notes: Some contaminants can degrade into other contaminants that also require cleanup. For example, TCE degrades into 1,2-dichloroethene, vinyl chloride, and ethene.
Glenn Research Center consists of two locations in Ohio, and the contamination from metals is only at one location, the Plum Brook Station, and originated largely with discharges at firing ranges and at locations used for burning miscellaneous waste.

While costs increased at a number of centers, the JPL reduced its environmental liabilities by $24 million, or about 30 percent.

JPL workers contaminated ground water during the 1940s and 1950s by disposing of solvents, solid and liquid rocket propellants, cooling tower chemicals, and analytical laboratory chemicals in unlined pits. The contaminants spread into local drinking water supplies.

“Jet Propulsion Laboratory is treating the contaminated groundwater for two nearby water districts, the City of Pasadena and the Lincoln Avenue Water Company. In addition, Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been funding facilities to treat drinking water for these two water districts since the early 1990s,” the report said. “According to NASA officials, Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a mature restoration program, and cleanup requirements have not changed in recent years, which has allowed for the center’s continued progress toward reducing its unfunded environmental liabilities.”

NASA’s total cleanup bill could be much higher than $1.7 billion due to difficulty in estimating cleanup costs.

“Consistent with federal accounting standards, NASA considers cleanup activities nonestimable if, for example, conditions surrounding the cleanup are uncertain or technical data for developing an estimate are incomplete or unreliable,” the report said.

“Specifically, NASA classified at least 25 of the 115 open restoration projects in fiscal year 2019 as not fully estimable because the projects were in a developing stage or NASA needed to conduct additional sampling, analysis, or data collection to provide a more complete estimate,” the document said.

A summary of the report follows.

Environmental Liabilities: NASA’s Reported Financial Liabilities Have Grown, and Several Factors Contribute to Future Uncertainties

Government Accountability Office
GAO-21-205 (Full Report)
January 2021

Why GAO Did This Study

Decades of NASA’s research for space exploration relied on some chemicals that can be hazardous to human health and the environment. NASA identified 14 centers around the country with hazardous chemicals that require environmental cleanup and restoration. NASA’s Environmental Compliance and Restoration Program oversees the agency’s environmental cleanup. NASA’s environmental liabilities estimate is reported annually in the agency’s financial statement. Federal accounting standards require agencies responsible for contamination to estimate and report their future cleanup costs when they are both probable and reasonably estimable.

This report describes (1) NASA’s environmental liabilities for restoration projects from fiscal years 2014 to 2019—the most recent data available at the time of our review—and (2) factors that could contribute to uncertainties in NASA’s current or future environmental liabilities. GAO reviewed NASA financial statements, guidance, and other relevant reports and interviewed NASA officials from headquarters and three centers, selected because of changes in their reported liabilities.

NASA provided technical comments on a draft of this report, which were incorporated as appropriate.

What GAO Found

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) estimated cleanup and restoration across the agency would cost $1.9 billion as of fiscal year 2020, up from $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2019. This reflects an increase of $724 million, or 61 percent, from 2014. NASA identified contamination at 14 centers around the country, as of 2019. Five of the 14 centers decreased their environmental liabilities from 2014 to 2019, but liability growth at the other centers offset those decreases and contributed to the net increase in environmental liabilities. Santa Susana Field Laboratory, California, had about $502 million in environmental liabilities growth during this period (see fig.). Nearly all this growth resulted from California soil cleanup requirements that NASA did not anticipate.

NASA’s reported fiscal year 2019 environmental liabilities estimate for restoration projects does not include certain costs, and some factors may affect NASA’s future environmental liabilities, potentially increasing or decreasing the federal government’s fiscal exposure. Certain costs are not included in the fiscal year 2019 estimate because some projects are in a developing stage where NASA needs to gather more information to fully estimate cleanup costs. Further, NASA limits its restoration project estimates to 30 years, as the agency views anything beyond 30 years as not reasonably estimable. Sixty of NASA’s 115 open restoration projects in fiscal year 2019 are expected to last longer than 30 years. With regard to factors that could affect future environmental liabilities, NASA is assessing its centers for contamination of some chemicals it had not previously identified but does not yet know the impact associated cleanup will have on the agency’s liabilities in part because standards for cleaning up these chemicals do not yet exist. New cleanup requirements for emerging contaminants could increase NASA’s environmental liabilities and create additional fiscal exposure for the federal government. Additionally, NASA is committed, through an agreement with the state of California, to clean soil at Santa Susana Field Laboratory to a certain standard, but the agency issued a decision in September 2020 to pursue a risk-based cleanup standard, which the state of California has opposed. According to NASA, a risk-based cleanup standard at Santa Susana Field Laboratory could decrease NASA’s environmental liabilities and reduce the federal government’s fiscal exposure by about $355 million.