by Neil Stalter | Zoom Out Mycology
As of September 2015, 17% of Americans (and 18% of all children under the age of 5) live within three miles of a superfund site. 4% (or 12 million people) live within 1 mile of a superfund site. As of this writing, there are currently 1,341 superfund sites in the United States. For a long time, when I heard “superfund” I knew it was a place I didn’t want to spend my spring break, but I did not appreciate just how ubiquitous these places that risk “hazardous substance release” are. There is at least 1 such Superfund site in every state except for North Dakota. New Jersey is the state with the most, at 114 unique sites. But what are these places, how did they come to be, and how dangerous are they really? By giving a history of the Superfund program, examining its current state of affairs, and understanding the strategies the EPA uses to clean up these locations, we can begin to answer some of the questions you probably have about this program.
What is a Superfund Site?
The name “Superfund” means exactly what you think it means. It is the program that allocates a significant amount of money (a super fund) to clean up and remediate hazardous waste sites to protect the people who live in and around those areas. This program was created by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) which passed in 1980. Superfund does not discriminate when it comes to where the hazardous waste originated from. Whether the contamination stemmed from private industry, the government, or a private citizen, Superfund’s ultimate goal is to hold the guilty party liable, and literally ‘make them pay’ for their mistake. This payment will go to clean up efforts as well as potentially compensating citizens for damages stemming from the hazardous waste.
People can and do still live in and around Superfund sites. One such example is Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY. The Canal was declared a Superfund site in 2010, yet in the past decade, there has been an investment of over $440 million in the town of Gowanus. Despite the fact that every time it rains sewage flows into the canal, the town is the target of significant development. Gowanus itself contains almost 136,000 residents living just a short walk away from the waterway. In fact, people love the canal for all its faults, and have rallied around the efforts to clean it up, starting organizations like the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, which organizes excursions on the toxic waterway. All of this to say, Superfund sites are far from abandoned chemical waste sites – but can in fact be areas of significant population and growth.
One of the important mottos for the Superfund program is that the “polluter pays.” When the program first began to be implemented in the 80s and 90s, much of the money for remediation came from private companies that had been indiscriminately dumping their waste in the surrounding environment. In theory, the only time that the polluter shouldn’t pay is if they cannot be found, isolated, or don’t have the funds to pay. However, over the past 20 years, taxpayers have shouldered more than $21 billion in cleanup and oversight costs for the Superfund program. At the same time, over $35 billion has been achieved from polluting companies for cleanup work, and for every dollar spent on cleanup by the EPA, private parties commit $8. How all this money is used, and what sites it goes to clean is based on a 0-100 hazard ranking system that takes into account the population, the chemical in question, and how likely it is to travel through the environment (through groundwater, etc.). Below is a list of existing (red) proposed (yellow) and removed (green) Superfund sites that provides some good insight into where these places are.
History of the Superfund Program
CERCLA was enacted on December 11th, 1980. However, the really interesting story of the Superfund program is what happened before any legislation was passed. One of the most famous and telling stories comes out of Love Canal, the somewhat ironically named town just southeast of Niagara Falls in Western New York. A canal had begun to be built there in the early 1900s to connect the upper and lower Niagara rivers in an effort to create power. However, by 1910 that plan had failed and left a large ditch in its wake. That ditch would become the dumping ground for Hooker Chemical in the 1920s-1950s, where the company would leave any and all chemical waste from their manufacturing processes. After it was filled and covered, Love Canal was sold to the city of Niagara for $1. Though it sounded like a good investment at the time (despite the warning in the paperwork of the chemical waste that lay underground), it would turn into a nightmare for the people of Love Canal and New York State.
Life continued for the town normally. A school was built, and families flocked to Love Canal looking for the suburban dream. Then, in 1978 a very large rainfall set off the “time bomb” laying underneath the city. In the short time after, the chemical cocktail that had been slowly leaching through the soil got the influx of water it needed to infiltrate the groundwater and start affecting the residents. An EPA agent visiting Love Canal described the site, and the picture he paints is haunting, so I’ll let his words do the telling:
“Corroding waste-disposal drums could be seen breaking up through the grounds of backyards. Trees and gardens were turning black and dying. One entire swimming pool had been had been popped up from its foundation, afloat now on a small sea of chemicals. Puddles of noxious substances were pointed out to me by the residents. Some of these puddles were in their yards, some were in their basements, others yet were on the school grounds. Everywhere the air had a faint, choking smell. Children returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.” (Beck, Eckardt).
After this scene, as well as the rise of birth defects and health problems in the community, residents had enough. Led by the remarkable speaker, activist, and mother Lois Gibbs, Love Canal fought for representation and the money it needed to protect the people in the community and get them out safely. It was this grassroots movement made up of residents and community members that raised their voices loudly enough to break through Hooker Chemical lobbyists and lethargic state officials to reach President Jimmy Carter, who announced a state of emergency in Love Canal in 1978.  This meant the relocation of 239 families, but still left 700 families who the government felt were not at sufficient risk to require relocation. Thus, activists continued their fight and earned another declaration in 1981 when all the remaining families were relocated. The final cost of these relocations was $17 million.  On September 30th, 2004 Love Canal was removed from the Superfund list after demolishing the neighborhood and remediating the spill with a final cost upwards of $400 million. A picture of the site now, compared to what it looked like in the 70s, can be seen above. It was this disaster, along with the realization that Love Canal was not an isolated event, that led the US government to pass CERCLA in 1980.
What's happening now?
The Superfund program remains in place and active to this day, with the EPA and liable organizations paying the costs for site remediation. However, things have evolved and changed since 1980. Since then, 329 sites have been “remediated” sufficiently to warrant removal from the list. Interestingly, in 1994, it was found that minorities and low income populations were benefitting less from the Superfund program than would be expected, leading President Clinton to pass an executive order that required the EPA to implement environmental justice policies to ensure that everyone benefits equitably from Superfund remediation. The success of this remains questionable though, as low income and minority populations are overrepresented near Superfund sites (15% and 46% respectively live within 3 miles of a site, compared to total population numbers of 14% and 37% in the US).
Since 2000, the budget for Superfund has decreased consistently. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama oversaw the cuts of the Superfund program’s budget from $2 billion to $1.1 billion. This led to a subsequent decrease of sites being cleaned up through Superfund. President Trump’s budget, interestingly enough, steps away from President Obama’s ideals of combating climate change, and focuses more on immediately obvious issues, like hazardous waste. To this end, despite the significant cuts to the EPA under Trump, about $330 million more has been allocated for the Superfund program.  Though through Superfund liable parties are the ones who ultimately pay the lion’s share of remediation costs, this publicly funded money is very important to get the ball rolling and help support clean up efforts.
When the Superfund program remediates a site, the strategy used depends heavily on what the site is contaminated by, the people living around it, and how likely it is for the contamination to travel. Some areas are closed for good from human settlement, like Love Canal. Others are “contained” in some way, through impermeable barriers through which water cannot take the contaminant and move it anywhere else. Other areas are “capped”, like one radium site in Denver, where a portion of the contamination was covered with a parking lot that is now used for a Home Depot.
People disagree about how effective this program really is at keeping people safe and treating residents around sites equitably. It can be difficult for the EPA to implement permanent solutions, leaving a lot of remediation to strategies that only “put a bandage” on the problem rather than solving it.
Though important, the Superfund program is not without its faults. Rather than relying on clean up efforts, this writer thinks that focus should be shifted to prevention rather than remediation. Recently, the public is requiring more accountability from companies and agencies that they are customers of. By doing research about the companies you buy products from, and advocating for sustainable and environmentally friendly business practices, private citizens can have a lot of power in helping to prevent hazardous waste tragedies. Electing lawmakers who value the health of their communities, and advocating loudly for your community (much like Lois Gibbs) anyone can begin making a difference in protecting both yourself and your environment.
 “Population Surrounding 1,388 Superfund Remedial Sites .” EPA.gov, EPA, Sept. 2015, www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/webpopulationrsuperfundsites9.28.15.pdf.
 “National Priorities List (NPL) Sites - by State.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 5 Apr. 2017, www.epa.gov/superfund/national-priorities-list-npl-sites-state#AZ.
 “Superfund: CERCLA Overview.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 24 July 2017, www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-cercla-overview.
 Livni, Ephrat. “Brooklyn’s Revival Has Reached the Banks of the Most Toxic Urban Waterway in America.” Quartz, Quartz Media, 18 June 2017, qz.com/1002031/brooklyns-revival-has-reached-the-banks-of-the-most-toxic-urban-waterway-in-america/.
 “Gowarnus Demographics.” Point2homes, Point2homes, 2018, www.point2homes.com/US/Neighborhood/NY/Brooklyn/Gowanus-Demographics.html.
 Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, GDCC, 2018, www.gowanuscanal.org/.
 Anderson, Bryan. “Taxpayer Dollars Fund Most Oversight and Cleanup Costs at Superfund Sites.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 20 Sept. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/national/taxpayer-dollars-fund-most-oversight-and-cleanup-costs-at-superfund-sites/2017/09/20/aedcd426-8209-11e7-902a-2a9f2d808496_story.html?utm_term=.d31722f878bf.
 “Superfund Enforcement: 35 Years of Protecting Communities and the Environment.”EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 7 Nov. 2017, www.epa.gov/enforcement/superfund-enforcement-35-years-protecting-communities-and-environment.
Beck, Eckardt C. “The Love Canal Tragedy.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Jan. 1979, archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/love-canal-tragedy.html.
 Anderson, Juliana D. “Love Canal Disaster.” Toxipedia, Toxipedia, 8 July 2013, www.toxipedia.org/display/toxipedia/Love+Canal+Disaster.
 Kleinman, Jordan. “Love Canal: A Brief History.” Geneseo.edu, SUNY Geneseo, www.geneseo.edu/history/love_canal_history.
 Ploughman, Penelope. Love Canal. Arcadia Publishing, 2013.
 O'Neil, S G. “Superfund: Evaluating the Impact of Executive Order 12898.”Environmental Health Perspectives., U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17637927.
“Trends in Federal Funding and Cleanup of EPA’s Nonfederal National Priorities List Sites.” Gao, US Government Accountability Office, Sept. 2015, www.gao.gov/assets/680/673051.pdf.
“Addendum to FY 2019 Budget.” Whitehouse.gov, US Government, 12 Feb. 2018, www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Addendum-to-the-FY-2019-Budget.pdf.
“Superfund Sites in Reuse in Colorado.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 2018, www.epa.gov/superfund-redevelopment-initiative/superfund-sites-reuse-colorado.
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