By Mathy Stanislaus
Thirty-five years ago, on December 11, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental, Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, the law that established the Superfund program. This anniversary has led me to reflect on the tremendous progress Superfund has made in cleaning up contaminated land, surface water and groundwater across the country.
Not only is the cleanup of contaminated sites critical to protecting human health and the environment; it also produces a healthy and vibrant community. The contamination at many Superfund sites was caused by the mismanagement of hazardous industrial and commercial wastes many years ago, but some sites are contaminated from recent activity caused by increased population and urban growth and the movement of contaminants away from their sources. With more than 51 percent of the U.S. population living within three miles of a Superfund, brownfields, or Resource Conversation and Recovery Act corrective action site, our cleanup programs are critical to restoring land and water, protecting human health, and maintaining communities’ economic growth and vitality. Using census data, we found that approximately 53 million people live within 3 miles of a Superfund site, roughly 17 percent of the U.S. population, including 18 percent of all children in the U.S. under the age of five.
Through the Superfund Redevelopment Initiative, our cleanups have helped communities across the country return over 850 of the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites to safe and productive commercial and industrial uses. Former Superfund sites also are being reused for residential development, recreational areas such as parks, and libraries and other public services. The reuse of previously contaminated land has had positive economic impacts on communities. Today, approximately 3,500 businesses are using cleaned up Superfund sites, generating annual sales exceeding $31 billion, and employing more than 89,000 people. In addition, residential property values near Superfund sites increased by 18 to 24 percent after a Superfund site was cleaned up and removed from our National Priorities List (NPL).
There is no stronger testament to the power of cleaning up contaminated land than what was accomplished in the historically underserved and economically challenged West Dallas area of Dallas, Texas, at the RSR Corporation Superfund site. Last month, I had the pleasure of attending an Excellence in Site Reuse event at the site, and it was especially rewarding to see how a cleanup has transformed a once-blighted area into a community asset.
For over 50 years, the West Dallas area was home to a major lead smelter operated by the RSR Corporation, which produced wastes that contaminated soil, sediment and groundwater, and the wind carried lead dust into nearby parks, schools, and neighborhoods. After the smelter’s closure in 1984, RSR Corporation conducted some initial cleanup of properties in area neighborhoods, but in 1991 our investigation identified additional contamination around the smelter. Between 1991 and 1994, we investigated nearly 7,000 residences and cleaned up the yards of over 400 properties, and in 1995 we placed the RSR Corporation site on the NPL. By that time, the Dallas Housing Authority (DHA) had demolished nearby 1950s-era public housing that had been affected by lead dust. In its place, DHA constructed much-needed, new affordable housing and an office complex, which employs more than 100 people. Goodwill Industries of Dallas acquired 46 acres of cleaned-up property from DHA and built a beautiful building with offices, a distribution center, continuing education facilities, meeting rooms, and a retail store.
The RSR Corporation Superfund site and the surrounding West Dallas area now provide residents with a new supermarket and shopping center, an animal care clinic, restaurants, a wider range of housing options, public and private schools, and a YMCA. With this redevelopment, West Dallas will continue to grow.
Many of these communities are home to the most vulnerable populations – children. The West Dallas cleanup contributed to reduced blood-lead levels in area children. If left unaddressed, elevated blood-lead levels may result in irreversible neurological deficits, such as lowered intelligence and attention-related behavioral problems. A study by researchers at Tarleton University found that the average blood lead levels of children in Dallas neighborhoods affected by lead smelters, including the RSR Corporation smelter, were significantly reduced between 1980 and 2002. This decrease marked an important step in creating a brighter future for West Dallas children.
The West Dallas site is just one example of how Superfund Redevelopment helps communities reclaim and reuse formerly contaminated land. Through an array of tools, partnerships and activities, Superfund redevelopment continues to provide communities with new opportunities to grow and prosper. We at EPA are committed to working with local groups and agencies to support redevelopment and revitalization efforts and, thereby, ensure the long-term protection of public health and the environment.