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Background Information on Superfund Sites

by Civilian Exposure

With a number of military bases on the EPA Superfund Site list, or with potential contamination issues that might qualify them to be added later, we thought we’d take a closer look at the Superfund program and share some stats with you.

Did you know that most of us have a Superfund site somewhere near us? More than 50% of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of one of the 1,300+ Superfund sites listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the nation’s worst toxic waste dumps. Of those, over 150 (approximately 10%) are military bases.

The Superfund program is part of, and funded by, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2007, the Center for Public Integrity found that nearly three decades after EPA launched the landmark initiative, the program is desperately short of money, creating a backlog of sites that continue to menace the environment and, quite often, the health of nearby residents.

CPI used data in 2007, obtained from the EPA through more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests, and interviewed dozens of experts inside and outside the agency.

Among the findings (as of 2007):

  • Cleanup work was started at about 145 sites in the previous six years (2000-2006), while the startup rate was nearly three times as high for the previous six years before.
  • During previous years, an average of 42 sites a year reached what the EPA calls “construction complete,” compared with an average of 79 sites a year in the six years before. Construction complete is reached when all the cleanup remedies have been installed at a site.
  • Superfund officials keep details about the program secret, meeting behind closed doors to rank which sites are the most dangerous and in need of immediate attention. The ranking is “confidential” because the agency does not want polluters to know which sites are priorities and which ones aren’t. Some EPA insiders say the secrecy is intended to avoid provoking the public into demanding a solution from Congress.
  • Four companies connected to some of America’s worst toxic waste sites escaped more than half a billion dollars in pollution cleanup costs by declaring bankruptcy, potentially passing the tab onto taxpayers. Analysis of court documents shows that these four companies, included on the EPA’s list of 100 companies connected to the largest number of Superfund sites, could have owed the federal government about $750 million to clean up their sites.

The EPA has developed a special designation for sites with dangerous materials that could reach and harm people: “human exposure not under control.” When the CPI released its investigation in 2007, 114 Superfund sites fell into this category. EPA considers human exposure to be “uncontrolled” at a Superfund site when people might be able to come into contact with the contamination by venturing onto the site itself or simply being near it.

Another EPA designation to look for is “Groundwater migration not under control.” These are where contaminants on a Superfund site could affect groundwater near the site. Be careful. Superfund experts warned that some sites that are deemed “under control” clearly still had problems.

Dozens of Superfund sites have lingered on a waiting list to be cleaned up, but it has taken years for them to get the necessary funding. In fact, the Superfund program is in such dire financial straits that EPA officials have told researchers and reporters in the past that they have had to delay needed work at some hazardous sites, to use money left over from other cleanups — which itself is dwindling — and to resort to cheap, less effective fixes.

Ideally the cleanup process is supposed to work something like this: EPA discovers the site and proposes it to the National Priorities List, the nation’s list of the most contaminated areas of the country. When EPA discovers a site and lists it on the National Priorities List, the first step that it takes is to find a “potentially responsible party”.

Then the agency performs an immediate emergency removal of waste if necessary. Next, EPA drafts a plan to get the site permanently cleaned up. If EPA can’t find a potentially responsible party, it’s supposed to clean up the site itself. Later, it can seek to charge the polluter for the cleanup. It then installs the necessary tools to remove the waste on an ongoing basis, until it is cleaned up enough to be deleted from the list.

If the EPA can find a financially viable polluter to perform this work, it is supposed to force the polluter to do so. This process can take decades.

Each step in the cleanup process comes with its own set of documents that will help keep track of the site’s cleanup progress. At most Superfund sites, the assessment of the damage is known as a “remedial investigation.” That leads to a cleanup plan called a “feasibility study” that should examine different options for treatment, with price tags attached and some explanation about the efficacy of each.

This leads to a “record of decision” – the agency’s final word on what will be required as a “remedy.”

That’s a basic description of what Superfund Sites are all about.

Have you been exposed at a base? Do you know if it is on the Superfund List?

Contact us.


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