A view of remaining foundation of the former Litton Systems manufacturing plant as seen from the east side of the property. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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A chemical linked to human cancers that was routinely dumped in northwest Springfield from the 1960s to the 1980s continues to be monitored and removed from soil, groundwater and private drinking wells today, and there’s no apparent end in sight. 

Most recently, the Springfield City Council authorized a company to install three wells along North Westgate Avenue east of the former Litton Systems Inc. to monitor the presence of TCE – trichloroethylene. That will bring the total of monitoring and monitoring/extraction wells on city property to nine, or a total of 101 in Greene County, according to officials at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). 

This marks the next step by a Northrop Grumman subsidiary to clean up the mess — and the undisclosed cost — it inherited when it bought Litton in 2001 as part of a larger acquisition. The former Litton Systems site is the source of north Springfield’s TCE contamination.

Northrop Grumman, an aerospace defense giant, isn’t new to environmental cleanup. Neither are the companies doing it — some of which won’t comment for this story due to non-disclosure agreements.

The years of contamination and cleanup beg two important questions:

Why is cleanup taking so long? How concerned should Springfieldians be about a material that environmental experts have called “the Houdini of chemicals?”

What’s been done so far

The cap of a test well outside the fence on the north side of the former Litton Systems manufacturing plant. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Under DNR’s oversight through its Superfund Cooperative Program, Northrop Grumman is using a variety of methods to monitor, investigate, scour and slurp TCE from the old Litton site at 4811 West Kearney St., and from area soil, groundwater, springs, private drinking wells, the Fantastic Caverns tourist attraction and the Springfield Plateau and Ozark aquifers within a 4.5-mile area of the Litton site. The epicenter of contamination is just east of the Springfield-Branson National Airport. 

The plant closed in 2007 and was demolished in 2008. Today, the site is a moonscape of concrete slabs and cracked driveways, overgrown weeds, patches of sunflowers and two modern buildings where groundwater cleanup is underway. The only sound at the site is a whispery hum blowing from a vent pipe below the roofline. The site perimeter is enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with three rows of barbed wire and signs stating “Private Property” and “Danger Construction Area No Trespassing.” 

As for a timeline, there still isn’t one.

“Cleanup of the impacted aquifers will be completed when the levels of TCE and other contaminants of concern are below health-based cleanup values,” DNR Engineering and Remedial Project Management Unit Chief Bryce Bobbitt said in an email interview.

Chain link fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the former Litton Systems manufacturing plant site. The property is now owned by Northrop Grumman Corp. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

A more blunt assessment came from DNR environmental geologist Sherri Stoner at a 2019 public meeting in Springfield. She was quoted telling the crowd the cleanup would probably take 100 years, if not longer.

Bobbitt summarizes the cleanup efforts to date: 

  • Northrop Grumman has sampled 401 wells; 333 showed no detection of TCE; only two wells had detections of TCE greater than 5 parts per billion, or ppb, exceeding the EPA’s health standards. Those wells subsequently were treated and showed no more levels of TCE or its related materials. Wells are sampled on a quarterly to every two years schedule based on TCE levels detected. Levels can shift over time.  
  •  The number of sampled wells continues to increase, Bobbitt explains, as previously unknown wells are discovered and property owners grant permission to sample those and previously known wells, according to the DNR.
  • Northrop Grumman reported that since cleanup began in mid-2019, about 856.34 pounds of heavy metals and solvents including TCE have been removed from the Springfield/Ozark aquifers by the end of March 2023. That’s up from 596 pounds. that had been removed by mid-2022.
  • Northrop Grumman continues to sample soil or groundwaters at the airport and nearby homes for “vapor intrusion.” That’s when chemical vapors in soil or groundwaters migrate indoors and can accumulate in indoor air at unhealthy levels. Sampling locations nearest to the former airport terminal ranged from very low to non-detectable. One exception was public roadways south of the site on Kearney Street. Sampling results collected since April 2017 don’t suggest that indoor air quality is affected inside the occupied residential or commercial structures, including several airport hangars. 
  • DNR’s 2016-2017 air samplings from earlier ones in Fantastic Caverns in northwest Springfield revealed levels of TCE concentration above the “health-based level of concern” for air in a commercial workplace. Since then, systems installed to remove the contaminant have been successful, the DNR reports, adding that “safe air levels are being maintained in the toured portions of the caverns.” Northrop Grumman and caverns officials continue to document ongoing cleanup and testing efforts there. A Fantastic Caverns official did not return two phone calls from the Springfield Daily Citizen.
  • Northrop Grumman installed wells to extract TCE over the years from the Springfield Plateau Aquifer and deeper regional Ozark Aquifer — an underground water source. Monitoring shows a steady decline of TCE levels in most of the wells, the DNR states. The extracted, tainted groundwater is sent to a holding tank, then treated at a facility on the former Litton site and discharged to the city’s sewer system for additional treatment by the city. As of July 2023, extracted groundwater continues to be treated at the site while treatment system upgrades are installed and tested, DNR’s Bobbitt says.
What happens to the treated water? 

Today, the extracted contaminated water undergoes a pre-treatment system in waste management units on the former Litton site to remove most of the pollutants before water is discharged into the city’s sewer system, according to the DNR and Errin Kemper, director of Springfield’s Environmental Services. The city regularly monitors to ensure that nothing discharged exceeds the city’s permit limits for a number of pollutants. Water discharged from the city eventually flows to the James River.

  • DNR does not retain information regarding the cost of Northrop Grumman’s efforts, Bobbitt says. “The vast majority of the review/oversight work by DNR on this project is cost recoverable from Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman is billed on a quarterly basis for the Department’s project oversight.  As such, any costs to the taxpayer on this project are minimal.”
  • Northrop Grumman installed and maintains granular activated carbon treatment systems in homes where wells have exceeded the EPA’s accepted safety standards, according to a DNR document. How that works: As water passes through carbon-rich materials, contaminants stick to the granules and are removed from the water or air. The water or air exiting the system will be cleaner, but may need a repeat if contaminants are still present, according to the EPA.   

Timeline coming, just not yet

Now decades into the cleanup efforts, the DNR said in a 2022 report that Northrop Grumman is developing a final plan for cleanup of contaminated groundwater and will send it to DNR for review. The DNR adds on its website, “The process of evaluating and selecting a final plan will include involvement from the community. The (DNR) anticipates hosting public meetings in the future to provide progress updates on the investigations and cleanup.”

A Northrop Grumman spokesman declined to respond to email questions from the Springfield Daily Citizen about its upcoming efforts here, stating only: “What (I) can share with you is that for over three decades, the company has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to investigate and remediate contamination at the former Litton site and surrounding areas, including the installation and sampling of monitoring wells.” 

While the Springfield City Council on Aug. 21 unanimously approved Northrop Grumman’s request to install and maintain the monitoring wells at no cost to the city, two council members publicly expressed the desire for more transparency about the cleanup project, and a projected completion date.

Springfield City Council member Monica Horton
Springfield City Council member Monica Horton, (Zone 1), photographed outside the property of the former Litton Systems Inc., now owned by Northrop Grumman Corp. Horton represents city residents who live near the site which has been subject to groundwater cleanup efforts for decades. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Springfield City Councilmember Monica Horton told the Aug. 21 council audience, “There’s no other way to look at this situation other than an environmental justice issue not only for the City of Springfield but for all of Greene County. I can only imagine how frightening the delayed notice of contamination must have been for residents. And this underscores why an environmental study is critical in the pre-development review process (for other projects.)”  Horton represents neighborhoods in the affected area.

Some residents on private wells near the Litton site may have dodged problems when Springfield City Utilities extended city water service to their homes in 1985 and 2000, and their wells were disabled. Litton runoff had already occurred by then, but several homeowners don’t recall their wells being tested. 

City Utilities spokesperson Joel Alexander said records indicate the residential water main extensions had been planned; nearby residential, commercial and industrial development during those years likely were the driving factors.    

Jean Schoch Quinn, 98, pictured with her cat Boots, lives on West Willard Road behind the former Litton Systems manufacturing plant property. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Jean Quinn and daughter and son-in-law Vicki and Michael Smith, who live with Jean, were disappointed they couldn’t keep their 400-foot well to irrigate the garden after they got city water in 2000. Alexander said state law requires it to identify and prevent cross-contamination, or backflow, into public water systems, as a private well could potentially do. A homeowner can keep the well, he said, but it cannot be part of or connected to the City Utilities system; separate plumbing would be required.

Despite their proximity to the contaminated Litton site, no family members have any apparent effects of contamination — George died of natural causes and Jean is a healthy 98 years old. As for the Smiths, they converted their large in-ground garden to raised beds, Michael says. “Because you never know.” 

Dangerous brew: A brief history

It all began with Litton, which employed some 1,000 people from the 1960s to 2007 at its 4811 W. Kearney St. site to manufacture printed circuit boards for the U.S. military. Workers routinely cleaned the circuit boards with a chemical brew containing metals such as copper, and volatile solvents including TCE.   

In a period of squishy environmental practices, workers were directed to dump the chemical waste in unlined lagoons, waste piles and pits on Litton’s property near the airport. The DNR became involved with Litton in 1979, and the Missouri Clean Water Commission put a halt to the dumping in 1980, ordering Litton to treat and send the waste to Springfield’s sewer system. That didn’t happen until two years later, according to the DNR. By that time, the lagoons, waste piles and pits had overflowed and the contaminants leached into the soil, groundwater, Springfield-area private drinking and commercial wells.

In environmental terms, it was the worst kind of event to happen in the worst possible place: A dangerous chemical oozing into the porous and watery Ozarks underground.

Among the contaminants was TCE, which health experts say is linked to cancers of the kidney and liver, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and problems in the male reproductive system, immune and nervous systems. 

It’s unclear whether any health problems have been reported in connection with the contamination. When asked, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox responded via email: 

“DHSS has received general health questions from the public during phone calls with individuals and during past public meetings, including questions on potential cancer effects from exposure to TCE. DHSS is drafting a Public Health Consultation regarding TCE in private well water,” Cox said in an email to the Springfield Daily Citizen. “In communities where there is environmental contamination, communities often blame the contamination for individual health problems, but in most cases, it is impossible to directly and definitively link an environmental exposure to an individual’s illness or disease.” 

DHSS previously sent out a community questionnaire to gather input on community concerns and information on how best to communicate with the community. Those results will be included in the Public Health Consultation expected in several months, Cox said. 

Don York and his wife bought a house six acres just south of the Litton site in 2006, planning to use it to run their construction business. According to a story by the Missouri Independent, a 2018 test of the Yorks’ personal well water contained 17 times more than the level of TCE that the EPA considers safe. York was among residents who filed a 2021 lawsuit that accuses Northrop Grumman of knowing residents were exposed to TCE and withheld that information from the public. When contacted by phone, a woman who identified herself as York’s daughter said he declined to be interviewed for this story. 

  •  TCE can perform a spectacular disappearing act, earning its reputation as the “Houdini of chemicals.” Undissolved TCE is heavier than water, so it sinks in groundwater and wells. It can also bind to soil, sediment or bedrock, then reabsorb into the water. This quick-change ability can affect where it travels and how long it stays in the environment. TCE can also disperse through vapor and travel, especially in a cavernous area with fissures and crevices. (TCE is described as having a pleasant, sweet smell similar to chloroform.) It can then revert from a vapor to contaminate clean water.  
  • Geologically, the Springfield area and much of the Ozarks are unfortunate hosts for contamination. Typical of “karst” topography,  it features an extensive network of voids, caverns and sinkholes in the shallow bedrock and springs that surface at various points. This network provides underground pathways where contaminants can travel farther than they would in soil or saturated groundwater, and in unpredictable patterns. 

The contamination remained concealed from many affected residents and the general public as the extent of the problem continued to emerge. Litton closed in 2007 and the site was demolished in 2008.

A view of remaining foundation of the former Litton Systems manufacturing plant as seen from the east side of the property. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

It was only in 2018, after Fantastic Caverns went public with the ongoing testing and cleanup at the tourist attraction that DNR officials opened up about the widespread contamination. The admission outraged area residents and environmental experts. In 2019, DNR and other officials met with angry residents at two public meetings – one to apologize for the state government’s handling of the crisis, and a second to further explain the extent of contamination and ongoing sampling, testing and cleanup efforts. 

Public outrage led to action. In 2018 and 2019, the DNR says Northrop Grumman sampled over 350 private drinking wells within 4.5 miles of the Litton site, based on a dye trace study documenting groundwater flow. Results of those – and the subsequent growing number of tests – led Northrop Grumman to install and maintain treatment systems in those affected wells.  

Northrop Grumman continues to investigate and sample areas on and near the demolished Litton facility site, including nearby city roadways. The company regularly samples private wells near the site and the monitoring well network that includes those installed in the Springfield and Ozark aquifers. It also samples springs east/northeast of the Litton site, including Ritter Spring East, Ritter Spring West, Ritter Park Spring and several private springs.  

More wells continue to be sampled as previously unknown wells are discovered and property owners grant permission to sample those and previously known wells, the DNR says.

Typically, new property owners that move into the Litton contamination  “area of interest” will reach out to Northrop Grumman and ask for their well to be sampled, Bobbitt says. Property and home sellers in that area whose wells were tested for or affected by the TCE contamination issue are responsible for disclosing that to buyers, says Jeff Kester of the Springfield Board of Realtors. 

Unidentified mechanicals outside the fence on the north side of the former Litton Systems manufacturing plant. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Mike Kromrey serves as executive director of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks. 

“To me, the story illustrates the cost of pollution, and the value of pollution prevention,” Kromrey said. “I’ve never seen a figure on how much the Litton site has cost landowners, the state/taxpayers, etc., but it would be astronomical. And we’ll never know for sure, but God forbid the chemicals have impacted the health of some individuals, which would be immeasurable. Keeping pollution out of the environment, and especially groundwater, is imperative.”  

DNR’s Bobbitt maintains its commitment to that goal.

“The Department is always concerned about the long-term presence of residual contamination in environmental media (soil, groundwater, surface water, sediment and air) to the extent that the residual levels pose an actual or potential threat of exposure to humans and the environment,” Bobbitt says. 

“This is true across the range of contaminated sites where the Department provides oversight for investigation, monitoring and cleanup,” he adds. “The Litton site poses some unique challenges that are not an issue at many sites. These challenges include the complex, karst geology in the site vicinity and the known impacts to springs and private wells.”

What are the next steps in working toward a final remedy?

“Additional investigations are ongoing to address some information gaps for the site,” Bobbitt said. “Once all the needed data is collected a Feasibility Study will be conducted to evaluate potential long term remedies.”

Springfield city officials don’t know Northrop Grumman’s timeline for installing the three monitoring wells in Springfield. Once in place, the wells will be flush to the ground. Depending on what the wells reveal, analysts will determine the next steps, Bobbitt says.

Horton’s constituents live in the affected area. While she and the other council members unanimously approved the request to install monitoring wells in the city right-of-way, she said she researched the history of the Litton site and remains concerned. She wants the public to have accurate information about the impact, if TCE is continuing to migrate and if that area is at risk so individuals can make decisions about their livelihood.

“As we’re learning with generations now and certainly those who come after us,” Horton says, “sometimes we inherit the successes and mistakes of past legislative policy and institutional practices… and we’re left holding the bag in terms of what those impacts are.”

Kathleen O'Dell

Kathleen O’Dell is a veteran journalist who has covered health care, business, education and investigative pieces throughout her career. She’s a St. Louis native and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In addition to working for a Texas newspaper, she was on the first staff of USA Today in Washington, D.C., and spent most of her newspaper career at the Springfield News-Leader. More by Kathleen O’Dell