Trout caught in Torch Lake, Mich., are not safe to eat. Groundwater in Baldwin, Fla., is not safe to drink. Six acres of land in Bridgewater, Mass., are not safe to live on.
All three locations were once among the most dangerous toxic waste sites in the country and became part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program. All three are now considered clean by the EPA, though toxins remain.
The EPA is responsible for protecting human health at 1,700 hazardous waste sites across the country through the Superfund program. These sites contain chemicals that can cause a range of serious illnesses, from cancer to birth defects to neurological disorders.
As is the case at Torch Lake, Baldwin and Bridgewater, an EPA “cleanup” does not mean all toxins are gone. Toxic materials, in many cases, are physically or financially impossible to eliminate. Instead, many Superfund cleanups end with restrictions on how a site can be used because the toxins left behind still pose a danger to human health.
But as time passes after a cleanup, no one agency monitors adherence to the restrictions. And notice or awareness of the restrictions fade or fail to remain part of property records. Ultimately, potential dangers remain for the one in four Americans who live within four miles of a Superfund site.
Federal funding for Superfund cleanups has stagnated over the past 15 years, even as the number of Superfund sites grows. Critics worry that financial constraints will only increase the amount of toxins left behind after Superfund cleanups, putting residents at risk.
HISTORY OF TOXIC DANGER
America’s toxic waste problem dates back 150 years to the start of the industrial revolution, when factories began producing large amounts of waste, including lead and mercury.
Chad McGuire, professor of environmental policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said manufacturing waste was commonly dumped on vacant land and in rivers and streams. Dumping continued for decades even as the waste became more dangerous.
In the 1930s, American manufacturers began using hundreds of newly developed synthetic chemicals, far more potent than those found in nature. Polychlorinated biphenyls, chlorinated hydrocarbons and dioxins are just a few examples of the toxins that ended up in the environment.
Public awareness of the dangers sharpened during the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, documented the danger of pesticides in the environment to birds, other wildlife and people. The book helped galvanize a growing environmental movement and raised awareness of invisible dangers in the soil, air and water.
In 1969, the oil-soaked Cuyahoga River caught fire in Ohio. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was created by the Nixon administration, and Congress strengthened the Clean Air Act. Two years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to restore and protect American waterways.
Then in 1978, the story of Love Canal became international news. Love Canal was a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, where homes and an elementary school had been built atop a landfill that was leaking 21,000 tons of toxic waste. Pregnant women there suffered high rates of miscarriages. Babies were born with multiple birth defects. Tests on residents showed chromosome damage and high white blood cell counts associated with leukemia.
Lois Gibbs lived in Love Canal and became an environmental activist, founding the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in 1981 to help other communities plagued by toxic waste. Looking back this year, Gibbs said Love Canal made Americans realize the danger of discarded toxins existed not just “in the middle of nowhere,” but also in their own backyard.
In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund Law. The goal was to identify and clean major toxic sites like Love Canal, and when possible to collect damages from the polluters responsible for the contamination.
Today, the EPA estimates that polluters pay for all of or part of the cleanup at 60 percent to 70 percent of Superfund sites. The rest are paid for with federal funds
The EPA’s list of Superfund sites, called the National Priorities List, comprises 1,322 sites. On its website, the EPA provides information and background about each of the sites and tracks their progress.
To become part of the Superfund list, a site must be submitted to the EPA by its home state. The EPA evaluates and scores the site based on level of danger and how complicated and expensive the cleanup is expected to be.
Most sites added to the Superfund list involve toxins that can cause cancer or other serious illnesses.
Other contaminated sites may be designated as “brownfield” sites, where levels of exposure are not as dangerous as Superfund sites. In most cases, toxins at a Superfund site are not contained and pose an active danger to human health.
A site is removed from the Superfund list when the potential for causing cancer or other serious illnesses falls to a certain level or is eliminated entirely. In the program’s 34-year history, 379 sites have been removed from the list.
More than 75 percent of sites now included on the Superfund list were added in the first 10 years of the program. The list is still growing. Since fiscal year 2010, the EPA has added twice as many sites to the list as it has deleted.
Identifying dangerous sites is complicated. Cleaning them to acceptable levels of public safety is even harder and can take decades.
PLANNING A CLEANUP
The goal of every Superfund cleanup, according to the EPA, is to make the site “protective of human health and the environment.” In practical terms, that usually means limiting the site’s danger of causing cancer or other illnesses. Measuring the danger to human health from one site to another is part of the complicated process.
In general, people have a one in three chance of getting cancer from any cause. A cleaned Superfund site can only add to that risk by a factor of between one in 10,000 and one in 1 million.
For chemicals that have non-cancer health risks, the site must not expose people to more than one “reference dose,” or safe maximum dose, of the chemical per day. That can include chemicals such as bisphenol A, mercury and toluene.
The EPA uses these risk standards at all Superfund sites. Because the calculations are based on human exposure to toxins, the resulting cleanups do not have to remove all chemicals. The health risk just has to be reduced. That means the EPA’s cleanup methods, along with the amount of toxins left behind, vary from site to site.
In determining how much contamination to remove, the EPA considers the different ways people may come into contact with the toxins. Exposure can come via contaminated air, soil or water, or consuming plants or animals from contaminated environments.
With the point of exposure in mind, the EPA determines how to reduce the source to cut risk to acceptable levels. Options can include removing the toxins, covering or sealing them, or even leaving some in place to let nature reduce the risk over time.
For example, dealing with contaminated soil in a public park can be different from contaminated sediment at the bottom of a river. In the park, the cleanup might involve removing all the topsoil for an immediate result. In the river, there may be restrictions on consuming fish that last for years until the risk is reduced over time as the chemicals break down or are washed away.
The EPA also weighs the current and future uses of a site. Standards and approaches may vary for a residential area, for example, compared to an industrial area.
As the EPA develops a cleanup plan for each Superfund site, the agency considers four variables that should have equal weight in its deliberations:
- Community acceptance
Cleanup plans also take into account environmental damage, along with human health concerns. Also considered are additional state or federal regulations related to the site, and input from other agencies and the public.
The EPA itself does not conduct reviews of the methodology or risk analysis used in final site cleanup plans. The only exception is a cost review of cleanup proposals for “megasites,” where cleanup costs are expected to exceed $25 million.
In the end, the EPA makes the final decision on each Superfund cleanup plan. And with this site-specific approach, tactics and targets for toxic elimination will vary from one site to another. Such variations can be confusing or even alarming to people living near Superfund sites.
For example, at 43 Superfund sites more than 2,500 cubic yards of underwater sediment are contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
At 21 of those sites, the EPA’s cleanup plan will leave behind one part PCB per million parts sediment. But in Massachusetts’ New Bedford Harbor site and Ohio’s Fields Brook site, the EPA will leave behind 50 parts PCBs per million parts sediment.
Even with EPA Superfund designation, the varying levels of toxic contamination that remain leave neighbors of Superfund sites wondering how their health is being protected.
When the EPA makes a final decision on how a Superfund site will be cleaned and what level of toxins will remain, those target levels still may violate other state or federal regulations. The EPA has the authority to waive other regulations as being “technically infeasible” to approve a Superfund cleanup plan.
According to the EPA, for example, it waives other agencies’ regulations at one in ten Superfund sites with groundwater contamination. The EPA has also issued waivers for Food and Drug Administration rules regarding seafood consumption from contaminated sites.
Again, this means the EPA is approving higher levels of contamination than allowed by other regulations when the agency feels waivers are needed for an effective cleanup plan.
When a cleanup plan leaves toxic contamination behind, the EPA often adds “land use controls” that set restrictions on how a site can be used or establish long-term public health warnings. Prohibitions might include residential uses, digging in the soil, consuming plants or animals from a site, or drinking the water.
Superfund land use controls do not always make the jump from EPA documents to property deeds or local zoning ordinances. That means people buying or renting some properties could be exposed to toxic contaminants.
In 2005, members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works asked the Government Accountability Office to study the effectiveness of land use controls. The GAO found that in many cases the controls did not provide adequate public health protection at former Superfund sites. In its report, GAO said the use of land use controls still could expose the public to toxic dangers because the restrictions were not always “adequately implemented, monitored and enforced.”
The EPA does not continuously monitor its own site restrictions. The agency only confirms the restrictions are working during overall reviews of a cleanup every five years. Between these five-year reviews, enforcement of the restrictions is left to states and municipalities. Monitoring and enforcement mechanisms vary from state to state.
Since 2003, 23 states have adopted an “environmental covenants” law that allows states to impose penalties on landowners who do not follow EPA restrictions for contaminated sites. States without these laws each have their own systems for monitoring restrictions on contaminated sites.
In Rhode Island, for example, Kelly Owens, associate supervising engineer at the state’s Department of Environmental Management, said owners of contaminated sites are required to complete a survey every year about how well controls are working. The state audits the surveys semi-annually and the penalty for violating a restriction is paying to fix the problem.
A handful of states have proactive monitoring systems similar to one in California, where a third-party company is hired to track all properties with use restrictions. When someone wants to work on a site, they must not only check with local planning boards, but also with the third-party company, to ensure there is no danger of contamination or exposure.
The process worked in 2006 when Chevron proposed to drill a well to protect one of its pipelines at the Del Amo Superfund site. The local permitting agency overlooked the fact that the drill site was in the area of a benzene groundwater plume. California’s third-party monitor identified the danger during a second review of the proposal.
In states without these systems, toxic dangers can develop.
The 2005 GAO report cites an example of an unnamed Superfund site where the cleanup plan restricted use of groundwater, which was not safe for drinking. Nonetheless, during the five-year review of the site, the EPA found that a drinking water well had been drilled on the site. Over a year’s time, at least 25 million gallons of contaminated water were pumped for use as drinking water.
SUPERFUND UNDER STRESS
Funding for the EPA’s Superfund cleanups has stagnated over the past 15 years. Congress has funded the cleanups with an average of $1.1 billion per year, not adjusting for inflation, meaning the same amount of money pays for less each year. And the drop in available funds comes as the number of sites on the Superfund list grows each year.
When adjusted for inflation, funding for the Superfund program has decreased by 40 percent from 1987 levels. Another GAO report in 2010 found that, to meet its cleanup needs, the EPA would need more than double the financing it’s getting through congressional appropriations.
The Superfund program was originally paid for with federal appropriations and a “polluter’s fee,” or tax, imposed on the chemical and petroleum industries. That fee expired in 1995 and has not been renewed, though Sen. Corey Booker, D-New Jersey, promised in June to sponsor legislation renewing the tax.
Since 1995, the Superfund has relied solely on appropriations. In fiscal year 2014 Congress budgeted $1.1 billion for the Superfund Program. Less than half of that, $497 million, was spent on actual cleanup efforts. The rest of the money was spent on legal expenses, testing expenses, administrative and operational costs.
As more Superfund cleanups leave toxins behind, federal and state authorities have to limit use and access to sites, and add more warnings to limit exposure to toxic chemicals.
The EPA’s use of land use controls — warnings and restrictions after a cleanup — has grown, according to the GAO.
- Between 1991 and 1993, only 10 percent of sites removed from the National Priorities List used such controls.
- Between 2001 and 2003, that figure rose to 53 percent of sites.
- For active sites where the EPA cleanup strategy was determined between 2001 and 2003, land use controls were part of 83 percent of plans.
Environmental activists and other critics contend the increase in land use controls indicates cleanups are not being completed at acceptable levels of safety. They blame reduced funding.
“(EPA) project managers see there’s not enough money in the budget for a full cleanup, and so they plan to leave more contaminants in place,” said Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. “It may be cheaper in the long run to clean more at the beginning, but if they don’t have the budget, they kick the can down the road.”
Leaving contamination can have unforeseen consequences. In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Agriculture Street Landfill site in New Orleans, a site removed from the Superfund list three years earlier. The contaminated site had been covered with layers of clean soil. Flooding from the hurricanes brought contaminants up to the surface. The EPA had to conduct a second cleanup.
The EPA says cost and available funding are not the only factors in cleanup decisions, and Superfund remedies continue to be “protective of human health and the environment.” According to the EPA, every cleanup is conducted under guidelines outlined in the Superfund legislation. Those guidelines say land use restrictions can help limit human exposure and should be used at Superfund sites in addition to removing toxins. The guidelines prevent land use restrictions from being the “sole remedy” at a site unless the EPA decides other options are not practical.
The rate at which Superfund sites are cleaned also has slowed, something Sen. Booker attributed during Senate testimony in June to the lack of funding. Between fiscal years 1992 and 2000, an average of 80 cleanups were completed each year. That number has been decreasing ever since. Only 14 cleanups were completed in fiscal year 2013.
Plus, site restriction monitoring is rare at the state level.
The 2005 GAO report generated considerable discussion of the need for monitoring at the state level, according to Sam Puffenbarger of the Association of Solid Waste Management Officials, but only five states have active monitoring systems.
Siegel said that without a database to integrate environmental regulations with municipal planning organizations, land use restrictions at former Superfund sites are not effective.
“There are many places where the state may be following up on the EPA controls, but the cities and towns that are approving new projects are not,” he said. “The danger is that new construction will renew the risk.”
People can take it upon themselves to learn more about nearby Superfund sites. Information and resources are available online from the EPA. Many times similar information is available from state health and environmental departments.
For now, environmental activists say without more money, the EPA will continue to leave more chemicals behind, and site restrictions will not be enough to protect public health.
“The bottom line is that these sites are not going to be cleaned; they’ll just be contained,” Gibbs said. She believes some contaminated sites removed from the Superfund list in the future will need a second cleanup when site restrictions are forgotten or ignored.
“What we have now is not an actual solution,” she said, “it’s only a partial fix.”