NASA Health Plans for Indian River Lagoon After Decades of Negative Impacts

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL: The space industry has spent decades in Brevard County, Florida (also known as Florida's space coast), testing rockets and using chemicals released into the environment. Some of these chemicals damage the ecosystem and are known to harm human health. 

NASA began identifying and characterizing contamination across the agency in the 1980s. Some of the contamination being disposed of today through Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Open Burn Unit are arsenic, lead, selenium, potassium, titanium, magnesium, barium, vanadium, chromium, cadmium, copper, aluminum, and perchlorate.

In 2005, the EPA asked that groundwater be sampled for perchlorate near rock launch sites, but the sampling wasn't done because there is no federal standard for perchlorate. Perchlorate is often mixed with other more significant contaminants and often remediated in conjunction with these other contaminants. 

NASA has also identified a contaminant of emerging concern in groundwater at the Kennedy Space Center that exceeds federal standards. The chemical called PFAS was discovered in wildlife's blood at the space center and tested at the highest levels of toxic fluorinated chemicals ever measured in the species. 

PFAS is linked to a wide range of health effects, such as a weaker immune system, cancer, heart defect, increased cholesterol levels, liver and kidney damage, reduced fertility, and increased risk of thyroid disease. 

These forever compounds known as fluorinated chemicals (PFAS) could be behind the high rate of various diseases on the Space Coast. The tumors and other immune-related diseases researchers see in marine mammals are considered by biologists as likely proof of the dangers that pollution poses to people.

The remediation program also found concentrations of TCE as high as 300,000 parts per billion in groundwater at the Kennedy Space Center. The EPA considers less than 5 parts per billion to be safe for drinking water. TCE is known to be carcinogenic. 

NASA is governed by federal laws which define how they address hazardous waste and implement these laws. Two key federal laws governing NASA's cleanup are the Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Their Environmental Compliance and Restoration program is responsible for cleaning up hazardous material and wastes released to the groundwater. 

The EPA does not track or monitor many chemicals like perchlorate. The space industry is not required to report to EPA when perchlorate is found at their facilities. Even where EPA has authorized states to implement the RCRA program, states are not required to notify EPA about perchlorate found under the program routinely. 

In a 2021 NASA Environmental Liabilities House of Representatives document

These industries are following federal standards, which are not always protective of the ecosystem or human health. They also make aggressive efforts to block the regulation on harmful toxins. Chemicals like PFAS and perchlorate do not have enforceable safety limits, which doesn't hold the industries accountable for cleaning up their mess.

Loss of Seagrass and 957 Manatees 

In NASA's recently released Indian River Lagoon Health Plan, they discuss the numerous negative impacts on the lagoon watershed through development, excessive stormwater and wastewater inputs, loss of wetlands, dredging, invasive species, and overfishing. They also acknowledge that even with the efforts of our local government, the health of the lagoon continues to decline and, in the last decade, has seen dramatic seagrass loss due to algal blooms.

Algal blooms are caused by excessive phosphorus and nitrogen caused by industry, agriculture and fertilizer application, sewage waste, and runoff from urban watersheds. Water pollution is killing the seagrass beds, and the majority of manatee deaths have been in Brevard County, where 320 have perished. 

FWC pulls a dead manatee through the Indian River Lagoon toward NASA's VAB building.

The decline of the Indian River Lagoon began decades ago in the 1960s, a few years after NASA began operation in 1958. The space industry changed the landscape of Brevard County, and thousands of people moved to the coast, bringing in a lot of development. The population growth led to increased pollutants in the Indian River Lagoon and excess sewage issues. The sewer plants were discharging directly into the lagoon until 1996, when Florida legislatures passed an IRL System Act to protect the waterways from plant discharges. It was around this time that scientists began to witness the seagrass decline in the lagoon. 

The accumulation of pollution and muck continued to grow through the years, leading to more algae blooms and the loss of wildlife. By 2012, scientists found that wildlife in the lagoon was developing tumors caused by contaminants. Four years later, algae growth could be seen throughout the lagoon from space, and today, we continue to see the devastating effects of excessive pollution in waterways. 

High Levels of Mercury 

In NASA's latest report, they touch on mercury contamination on the coastal Atlantic Ocean and how high levels are found in sportfish, dolphins, and humans consuming fish from these regions. Also highlighted is how the atmosphere is recognized as a significant and uncontrolled source of nutrients to the lagoon.  

For mercury to contaminate the ecosystem, it must be converted into a neurotoxin called methylmercury. The bacteria responsible for producing methylmercury is sulfate. Mercury goes into the atmosphere from emissions and returns to the earth's surface with rain that enters our waterways. 

Some of the highest levels of methylmercury recorded in the United States have been in Florida in dolphins and fish. It also affects raccoons, alligators, and wildlife that consume fish. Studies have shown mercury as a neurotoxin. The IRL Health Plan proposed to establish additional monitoring to understand this source and issue more.

The Space Industries Role in Protecting Our Water & Health

Seventy years of neglect of our environmental resources on the east coast of Florida has been detrimental to our ecosystem and health. It's about time that the space industry takes the initiative to help clean the waterways. Their operations have played a role in declining water quality. 

KSC plans to help figure out sources of pollution in the IRL, Mosquito Lagoon, and Banana River from the space center and reduce them. They also want to work to restore the seagrass beds, remove muck, restore clams, expand shoreline habitat, and reduce reliance on septic tanks on their property. They plan to partner with several groups to monitor wildlife, algae blooms, nutrients, and more. 


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