superfund

A Reflection on the Gold King Mine Incident

By Mathy Stanislaus

Today, we are releasing a new publication, One Year After the Gold King Mine Incident: A Retrospective of EPA’s Efforts to Restore and Protect Communities. The report details our efforts — including the projects and groups we have funded — to protect the areas around the Gold King Mine (GKM) and prevent another spill like this from happening at other EPA work sites at mines across the country.

We continue to be accountable for the release, which occurred as a result of our work to investigate the mine. Since the accident, we have dedicated more than $29 million to respond to the release and to provide for continued monitoring in the area. Over the past year, we have remained committed to distilling important lessons from the incident, and are working on a more permanent solution to acid mine drainage in the Upper Animas Watershed. We have improved and tested stakeholder notification lists, instituted a headquarters review and state consultation process for all mine work plans prior to starting work at a site, provided grant assistance to foster collaboration and help support state and tribal water quality management programs,  and are developing a national report on best practices for hardrock mine remediation. We have worked with communities within the Bonita Peak Mining District area for many years on long-term solutions to address the estimated discharge of more than 5 million gallons per day of acidic mine influenced water to the Upper Animas River watershed. In April, we proposed a Superfund National Priorities Listing for the Bonita Peak Mining District (which includes Gold King Mine) and are working to finalize the listing this fall.

As Assistant Administrator for our Office of Land and Emergency Management, I can say that tackling the national environmental issue of abandoned mines is one of the toughest challenges we face. There are no overarching federal statutes or regulations for addressing the environmental contamination from abandoned hardrock mines. When requested by state or tribal partners, our Superfund program has been used to investigate and remediate abandoned mines that present a high risk to human and environmental health.  A 2015 Government Accountability Office report estimates that we spend anywhere from 7 to 52 times more at mining sites than at other types of Superfund sites.

Overall, the scale of this problem is striking. There are at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mines in the western U.S. states and Alaska. Water draining from these types of mines and mine tailings are often highly acidic and release heavy metals such as zinc, lead, cadmium, copper and aluminum into the groundwater and surface waters the public relies on for drinking, agricultural irrigation and recreation.

The legacy of abandoned hardrock mines continues to be a source of complex challenges for our and the other federal and state agencies working to address this impact over the long-term. We thank all of our federal, tribal, state and local partners for their contributions to this first year of work following the GKM incident. We are strongly committed to working together to achieve long-term solutions to prevent future releases and protect our vital water resources. For more information, please visit: https://www.epa.gov/goldkingmine.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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EPA: “Aim High” – Working Toward a Sustainable Future

By Administrator Gina McCarthy

Last month, I asked EPA employees to share how their work at EPA is contributing to a sustainable future for our kids and grandkids. I wanted to hear about the many ways our staff are going above and beyond EPA’s foundational work to limit harmful pollution, and taking proactive steps to build healthy, economically vibrant communities.

Our teams responded in force, with 55 stories about the diverse, creative, and innovative ways they are building a sustainable future. Our best ideas are those that can be shared, replicated, and built upon. And we have so much to learn from each other’s successes. Here are some team highlights from across the agency:

Sustainable city planning: A team based in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in partnership with a number of EPA offices and regions, is looking at the connection between green infrastructure, energy consumption, and improved air quality. The team is providing technical assistance to Kansas City, MO-KS, to help better quantify the changes in pollution that result from “greening” of urban infrastructure in the area (i.e., green streets, green roofs, trees). This project will ultimately help promote green infrastructure projects that demonstrably improve water quality and advance sustainability – so that they can be incorporated into future city planning.

Green Remediation: EPA Region 1 is using strategies to make the cleanup of contaminated sites more sustainable, including by promoting, tracking, and considering green and sustainable remediation practices for Brownfield sites and Superfund sites. These efforts are helping to minimize the impacts of remediation and cleanup efforts, and ensure long-term, sustainable outcomes.

Community-Based Social Marketing: Region 5 provided funding and contractor assistance to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, as they worked with their local tribal college to improve waste management. The project used community-based social marketing (CBSM) techniques to develop positive behavior strategies that are culturally appropriate. The project focused on increasing recycling behavior at the Band’s community college. Results from the pilot showed a 41% overall increase in the recycling rate at major locations throughout the campus. The Band worked with Region 5 and contractor support to put together a Tribal CBSM Training Guide, based on the lessons learned from the pilot to encourage other tribes to use CBSM to increase sustainable behaviors.

Coordinating Across EPA Programs: EPA Region 10 staff from Superfund, Clean Water Act, TSCA and Counsel have coordinated for several years to better align and sustain efforts in reducing toxics in waters. Staff recognized that in order to achieve more sustainable and long-lasting results, they needed to work together to more efficiently and effectively reduce toxics in the environment.  This includes addressing ongoing sources of and pathways for pollutants and aligning overlapping programmatic efforts to “clean up” waters and sediments. This small ad-hoc group ensured that language was added to EPA’s National Industrial Stormwater General Permit requiring those discharging into local Superfund Sites to work with the Regional office to minimize impacts and prevent caulking and paint sources of PCBs from getting into Superfund sediment sites. Region 10 staff also wrote language included in the Washington General Fish hatchery Permit to identify and remove sources of PCBs.

CWSRF: The Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) program is a federal-state partnership that provides communities a permanent, independent source of low-cost financing for a wide range of water quality infrastructure projects. EPA, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) and the Farmer’s Irrigation District (FID) collaborated and used the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) to convert miles of open, earthen irrigation ditch system to a pressurized and piped system for Hood River’s Farmers Irrigation District. Most recently the Farmers Irrigation District also began using the CWSRF loans to purchase equipment for production of clean, renewable energy through micro-­‐hydroelectric generation.

I couldn’t be prouder of the work EPA employees are doing across the country. Here’s to more creativity, ingenuity, and innovation in the months and years ahead.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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The Foundation Has Been Laid: Helping the Community That Made Me Who I Am

By Stanley Walker

Stan WalkerIn 1969, I first walked up the steps to Horace Mann Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo. The steps were strong, sturdy, and built on a foundation of community, love, and support. I was so excited to be able to go to school like the other kids in the neighborhood, more importantly being able to walk with my older brother and sister. It was a great feeling. At five years old, I felt like I was finally growing up by being able to walk up those steps and enter the school as a real Horace Mann student.

For the next eight years, I would be in a learning environment filled with knowledge, wisdom, and street smarts. Day in and day out, I would be in the presence of the best teachers, smartest students, and of course, some of the greatest athletes in the area.Horace Mann Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo.

On Sept. 23, 2015, I had the opportunity to walk up the steps of hope again. However, it was under different circumstances. The Environmental Protection Agency was awarding Kansas City, Mo., a grant to help communities such as the Ivanhoe Neighborhood revitalize that area.

Although the school has been torn down, the bricks have been saved and are being reused on the site. Saving the bricks serves as another symbol for me. The bricks have endured strong winds, blisteringly hot summers, and bitterly cold winters. Like the bricks, many folks in the community have endured the various seasons of life. You can sometimes see the chips and scars left by the seasons on the faces of the community. However, the strength for the community to get up one more time from the poverty, urban flight, crime, and neglect reminds me how Evander Holyfield stormed back after taking a vicious punch from Riddick Bowe. I watch the community get back on its feet before the count of 10 with the addition of the Aldi’s store on 39th and Prospect, and the duplexes being built to replace the school.

While at the celebration, someone Stan Walker poses for photofound a piece of an old chalkboard. It evoked memories of being able to go up to the board and work a problem in front of my class, which was a real honor. For almost 50 years, there were a couple of pillars like Mrs. Margaret May who kept the foundation strong and pieced it back together when it began to crumble. As I stood next to her on that September day, I could not thank her enough for preserving the foundation of a strong community. Much of who I was, who I am, and who I will become will still come back to the foundation built by Horace Mann Elementary School.

About the Author: Stanley Walker manages the Superfund Technical Assistance and Reuse Branch at EPA Region 7. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Looking Back as We Move Forward: My 25 Years in the Superfund Program

By Diana Engeman

When I began working here 25 years ago, I could not appreciate the perspective I would get from working in EPA’s Superfund program from its early years, seeing it grow and evolve. In December 1980, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), more commonly referred to as Superfund. As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Superfund program, I look forward to my 25th anniversary with EPA Region 7 here in the Heartland.

So what is Superfund? 

Superfund sites fall into two general categories: removal sites and remedial sites. Removal sites generally require short-term action. These are train car derailments, abandoned drums along a back road, or spills that may require quickly providing people with an alternative supply of clean water. The other category of Superfund sites, called remedial sites, require long-term actions to address contamination that may be more widespread or complex. Most of my work has involved remedial sites.

Little did I realize when I first started at EPA that I would be working on the first site assigned to me 25 years later – and someone will still be working on it when I retire! Does this mean I’ve failed? No, and let me explain why.

Carter Carburetor

EPA Region 7 hosts an event to announce the settlement agreements related to the Carter Carburetor Superfund Site in North St. Louis, July 29, 2013. (EPA Photo by Toni Castro)

Many Superfund sites are the result of the way hazardous materials were disposed of in the 1800s through the 1960s. Wastes from many manufacturing operations were buried underground, poured down wells, piped to waterways, or just left behind when businesses ceased operations. This was not unlawful at the time, and was probably perceived by most people as perfectly acceptable. They did not realize that, decades later, the soil where they live or the groundwater they rely on as a source of drinking water would be contaminated and unsafe to use.

There are still new Superfund remedial sites being identified in Region 7, but a significant amount of the work we do involves making sure that sites where cleanup activities were initiated many years ago, continue to make progress toward their cleanup goals, remaining safe in the meantime. This is part of the Superfund program evolution.

We are also actively involved in the redevelopment of some of these remedial sites. Even though a significant amount of contamination remains in the subsurface at one of my sites, because there is not currently a technology available to remove it, we are working with the local government on their plans to put their municipal bus storage facility on the property. There are some special issues that have to be addressed up front to make this feasible, but it’s an excellent opportunity to breathe new life into property identified as a Superfund site. It is my hope that this is the future of Superfund – new opportunities where old problems once existed.

25 years of Superfund site work

So, back to the first Superfund site assigned to me. The contamination was left at the site in the early 1900s. It was discovered in the early 1980s when the city excavated to install a new sewer line. Twenty years ago, all of the contaminated soil that could possibly be excavated was removed and treated, and the hole was backfilled under the direction and oversight of EPA. The groundwater immediately below where the contaminated soil had been is still contaminated at levels not safe to drink. But, through on-going sampling, we know exactly where the contamination remains.

No one is drinking this water or being exposed to it in any other way. There are actions taking place to treat the contaminated water, reducing the volume of water affected. Although it will take many more years before the groundwater will be “clean,” we will continue to stay on top of what is happening at the site. Superfund law requires EPA to formally review a site every five years to make sure the remedy is protecting human health and the environment. If problems are identified, they have to be addressed. This continues until the site is deemed “unrestricted use/unlimited exposure.”

This means I will probably be watching over my first Superfund site until I retire, making certain it remains safe. And it is very likely someone else will be watching over it after I retire.

Learn about Superfund’s anniversary: http://www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-35th-anniversary

About the Author: Diana Engeman has been a project manager in the Superfund program in Region 7 for 25 years. She has enjoyed the opportunity to work with a wide variety of people, both scientists and non-scientists, throughout her career at EPA.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Protecting Communities through Superfund Enforcement

By Cyndy Mackey

December 2015 marked the 35th Anniversary of the Superfund program, the federal government’s most successful program designed to clean up the nation’s contaminated land and water and respond to environmental emergencies. I oversee EPA’s Superfund enforcement program, which focuses on cleaning up neighborhoods, ensuring that the polluter pays, and protecting human health and the environment.

The past 35 years have brought significant changes to Superfund through congressional amendments, changes to perspective through reauthorization discussions, and interpretations from the judicial system. Not only has the law changed, but technology has, too.

I am proud to have dedicated my career to cleaning up contaminated sites, and my goal in my current role is to support EPA’s work to find responsible parties and make sure that polluters pay for the cost of cleanups instead the American taxpayers.

For every dollar spent by the Superfund enforcement program, private parties commit to spending eight dollars toward cleanup work leading to restoration of land and water, facilitating reuse and revitalization, and protecting communities. Since the program inception, EPA has secured over $35.1 billion in private party commitments and over $6.9 billion to recover past cleanup costs. EPA has been instrumental in helping to get the responsible parties to pay for cleanup of sites across the country. For example:

  • A 2006 enforcement agreement with General Electric resulted in a $2.7 billion cleanup of contaminated sediment and 300,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) being removed from the Hudson River riverbed. The dredging of the Hudson River PCB Superfund Site was completed in October 2015.
  • A 2014 settlement to resolve fraudulent conveyance charges against Anadarko and Kerr-McGee associated with the Tronox bankruptcy means $1.9 billion will go toward cleanup of contaminated Superfund sites across the country.
  • A 2009 agreement required $975 million for the cleanup of contamination at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. This agreement facilitates the cleanup of 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash waste impacting the Emory River and adjacent land.
  • In 2007, EPA collected more than $124 million from Hercules Incorporated to recover costs for the Agency’s cleanup work at the Vertac Chemical and Jackson Landfill Superfund Sites in Jacksonville, Arkansas.

EPA’s Superfund enforcement program is strong and is committed to finding new solutions as we address new sites, industrial processes, and hazardous substances to ensure human health and the environment are protected in communities across the country.

More information about Superfund’s accomplishments over the past 35 years.

About the author: Cyndy Mackey oversee EPA’s Superfund enforcement program, which focuses on cleaning up neighborhoods, ensuring that the polluter pays, and protecting human health and the environment.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Cleanup and Redevelopment of Superfund Sites Benefits Communities

: (left to right) EPA Region 6 Administrator Ron Curry; Tim Lott, Vice President of Capital Programs, Dallas Housing Authority; EPA Assistant Administrator, Office of Land and Emergency Management, Mathy Stanislaus

(left to right) EPA Region 6 Administrator Ron Curry; Tim Lott, Vice President of Capital Programs, Dallas Housing Authority; EPA Assistant Administrator, Office of Land and Emergency Management, Mathy Stanislaus

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.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Superfund Turns 35

By James Woolford

December 11 marks the 35th anniversary of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act—better known as Superfund—that President Jimmy Carter signed into law in 1980. Anniversaries are good occasions to look back on what’s been accomplished. For Superfund’s 35th anniversary, we chose the theme 35 Years, 35 Stories to give people across the country an opportunity to reflect on the difference Superfund cleanups have made in their communities.

From the 35 stories on our website, you will hear again and again how cleaning up a hazardous waste site signaled a community’s new beginning. You’ll hear how protecting human health and the environment makes a positive difference in people’s lives. You’ll hear how a clean environment and a thriving economy go hand in hand in making a better community.

Take for example, the Kansas City Structural Steel site in Kansas. The former steel plant was shut down in the 1980s, leaving behind contamination and hundreds of unemployed workers. A blighted spot in the community for years, the site was cleaned up and made suitable for redevelopment. As part of our 35 Years, 35 Stories series, you’ll learn more about how the site came to be the location for a Walmart Neighborhood Market in the underserved Argentine neighborhood.

You’ll also hear from Alex Mandell, a community involvement coordinator in our Philadelphia regional office, about land restoration around the Palmerton Zinc site in Pennsylvania. Beginning in the early 1900s and continuing for 80 years, zinc smelters released heavy metals into the surrounding area’s land and waters. The smelting activities eventually denuded over 2000 acres of land on the Blue Mountain near the Appalachian Trail. Superfund activities included cleaning up residential yards and surface water, as well as extensive replanting of native vegetation. The land now is a thriving native prairie and home to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, where both wildlife and the public can enjoy the open space.

I’ve spent most of my career involved in one aspect or another with the Superfund program. During the early years of my career, I was involved with Superfund enforcement, and I later oversaw federal facility site cleanups when I headed up EPA’s Federal Facility Restoration and Reuse Office. Nine years ago, on Superfund’s 26th anniversary, December 11, 2006, I became the Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation’s director. What keeps me inspired every day is the fulfillment I realize working in a program that makes a visible difference in people’s lives.

The 35 stories we’ve captured for the 35th anniversary of Superfund are just a portion of the environmental and economic restoration work occurring across the country. There are many more stories to be told.

About the author: James Woolford is the Director of the Office of Superfund Restoration and Technology Innovation.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Enforcing the Superfund Law, Past and Present

By Cynthia Giles

Back in 1986, I was an assistant U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia. I was working on a variety of civil enforcement cases, and learning about the importance of holding violators accountable for pollution in American communities. That year, I took on one of the nation’s earliest Superfund trials – U.S. v. Tyson. The U.S. Government was seeking to hold several parties responsible for contaminating a dump site with hazardous substances that ultimately were released into local Pennsylvania waterways.

While holding polluters accountable is always important, this trial in particular had great significance. In the early days of the Superfund law, it was essential to demonstrate that the U.S. government was serious about following through on its commitment to Americans, and prepared to take responsible parties to trial to assure they were held accountable for cleaning up pollution they created. The trial in the Tyson case lasted for three weeks and all the parties involved were found responsible for the contamination. This trial helped to establish the foundation of Superfund’s polluter pays principle.

This winter, as we reflect on the 35th anniversary of Superfund, I’m proud of what EPA’s Superfund enforcement program has achieved. Just as in U.S. v. Tyson, EPA has followed through on its commitment to ensure that responsible parties participate in performing and paying for cleanups. This “polluter pays” principal stands strong – we are committed to making polluters, and not the taxpayer, pay for cleanup of hazardous waste sites.

By placing the burden of cleanup on those responsible for the contamination, EPA is saving American taxpayers money and protecting the environment. For every one dollar spent on Superfund civil enforcement activity, approximately eight dollars in private party cleanup commitments and cost recovery is obtained for cleaning up contaminated sites across the country.

Here are a few examples of how we’ve held responsible parties accountable for cleaning up pollution:

  • Last year EPA, along with the Department of Justice, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and the bankrupt debtor’s trustee, settled a historic fraudulent conveyance case. The settlement put nearly $4.4 billion to work in communities from New Jersey to California.
  • A settlement last year with Eastman Kodak Company and the state of New York established a $49 million trust for cleanup. In addition to putting much needed funds into cleaning up the local environment, including the Genesee River, the cleanup dollars will support the creation of new jobs in Rochester, New York.
  • In 2009, EPA joined forces with other federal and state agencies during a corporate We pursued and achieved a $1.79 billion settlement to fund environmental cleanup and restoration at more than 80 sites around the country.

Today, just as was true back in 1986 in Philadelphia, the polluter pays for cleaning up toxic pollution in communities. Thanks to this important law and public servants across the country implementing it, America is a cleaner, safer place to live.

Learn more about EPA’s Superfund enforcement program.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Explaining How We Address Contaminated Sites – Learn About the Superfund National Priorities List

By Mathy Stanislaus

Love Canal. Valley of the Drums. In the late 1970s, these sites created a growing national awareness that if hazardous waste was released into the environment and left abandoned, it presented potential human health and environmental risks. On December 11, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, better known as “Superfund”) into law. Finally, the federal government had a statutory authority to clean up sites where releases had occurred or threatened to occur.

EPA maintains a list of the nation’s most serious abandoned and uncontrolled hazardous sites, the National Priorities List (NPL). The NPL helps us determine which sites warrant further investigation and cleanup. There is a statutory requirement to update the NPL annually, though as a matter of policy, we typically update the NPL twice a year. Recently, we added five and proposed seven hazardous waste sites to the NPL.

Only sites on the NPL are eligible for federal funding for long-term cleanup. The Superfund program operates on the principle that polluters should pay for the cleanups, rather than passing the costs to taxpayers. We search for parties legally responsible for the contamination at sites and the law holds them accountable for the cleanup costs. For the newly added sites without viable potentially responsible parties, we will investigate the full extent of the contamination before starting substantial cleanup at the site.

We undertake removal actions to address more immediate threats, including emergencies that require on-scene arrival within hours, and time-critical situations, where a response is needed within six months. Removal actions may speed up the cleanup of portions of a site or eliminate the need for long-term actions at portions of a site.

Listing a site on the NPL is a multi-step process. To propose a site to the NPL depends on many factors such as:

  • site complexity;
  • extent of stakeholder interest;
  • state and tribal support; and
  • availability of other cleanup options.

After initial investigation and sampling determines the site warrants further evaluation and potential remediation, the data gathered is used to   evaluate a site’s relative threat to human health or the environment through the Hazard Ranking System.

In addition, if the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) issues a health advisory recommending removing people from the site and we determine it will be more cost-effective to use our remedial authority rather than our emergency removal authority, a site can be placed on the NPL. Further, each state can designate one top-priority site for addition to the NPL (16 states or territories have yet to designate a top-priority site). Sites are proposed for addition to the NPL as a rulemaking published in the Federal Register. EPA generally accepts comments for 60 days, responds to the comments, and places those sites on the NPL.. For most sites, the time between proposal and final listing is six months.

State partnership is critical to the cleanup of Superfund sites. We often work with states to conduct site assessments, and as a matter of policy, we request state support to place sites on the NPL. In some cases, states lead the remedial action work with our oversight. As a statutory requirement, states contribute a “cost share” equal to 10 percent of the fund-financed costs of the remedial action, and are responsible for long-term operation and maintenance of the site remedy. When we list sites on the NPL, federally recognized tribes are afforded the same treatment as states at sites for which they have jurisdiction.

Superfund cleanups protect communities’ health, environment and economic wellbeing. The study Superfund Cleanups and Infant Health, shows that investment in Superfund cleanups reduces the incidence of congenital abnormalities in infants by as much as 25 percent for those living within 2,100 yards of a site. Another study found that once a site has all cleanup remedies in place, nearby property values reflect a significant increase as compared to their values prior to the site being proposed for the NPL.

Superfund not only protects health and the environment, it can serve as a catalyst for beneficial reuse.  Today hundreds of communities are reusing Superfund sites for ecological, recreational, industrial, military, commercial, residential, and other productive uses. At the end of FY 2014, based upon data from 450 of the of the 850 sites that have some type of reuse, ongoing operations of more than 3,400 businesses are generating sales of more than $30 billion and employing over 89,000 people representing a combined income of $6 billion.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Water Wednesday: Why It’s More Than Lead Exposure

By Chrislyn Johnson

On a cold winter day in early 2008, when I worked for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), it felt as if snow could fall any minute when my team pulled up to a family’s lot in southwestern Missouri. The sight I took in was depressing. Three dilapidated mobile homes stood on mostly hard-packed and bare soil, with very little vegetation. A pen of about 20 chickens, scrambling over one another, rustled from the far end of the property. In a bare wire cage, a lone rabbit tried to shield itself from the wind by huddling against the edge nearest a post. The occupied mobile homes were held together with makeshift repairs. Scrap cars, piles of recyclables, and two abandoned mobile homes sat toward the back of the lot. This is a common sight in rural Missouri and much of America.

Past and Present Lead Mining, EPA Lead Strategy Paper Maps, 2012. Map by Valerie Wilder, MDNR. (Click to access full-size map.)

Past and Present Lead Mining, EPA Lead Strategy Paper Maps, 2012. Map by Valerie Wilder, MDNR. (Click to access full-size map.)

I took in this bleak picture in a short time, as I worked to test the family’s water and soil for lead. This was part of a joint EPA-MDNR Superfund project team that tested for lead contamination in drinking water and soil. The area was chosen based on locations of historic mining areas in southwestern Missouri. Lead mining has a long history in Missouri, but lead exposure often occurs in areas without any mining.

We sampled the property by first screening the soil with a handheld XRF (X-ray fluorescence) meter. If the readings were above a certain threshold, a sample of the soil was bagged and labeled to be further evaluated under controlled laboratory conditions. Water samples were taken from drinking water faucets and placed in Nalgene containers, also labeled, and then placed on ice in coolers. The entire sampling event at the property took approximately one hour.

Lead is a soft, corrosion-resistant metal used for a host of products and applications from manufacturing glass and paint to joining metallic-like electrical components and pipes. People are often exposed to lead at home from deteriorating lead-based paint. Children are at a higher risk of exposure since they may play with or mouth objects such as windowsills, doors, and stair railings and banisters. If exposed, this can lead to lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning in children can cause many issues, including behavioral problems, developmental delays, hyperactivity, hearing loss, and organ damage. Adult symptoms can include persistent fatigue, insomnia, irritability, and loss of appetite to name a few. A simple blood test can determine if you are at risk. Without the right resources, people may suffer from many problems.

Because of privacy protections, I never found out if that Missouri family received aid in the form of soil removal or public drinking water access, but I often think of them when I reflect about why I do the kind of work I do. They were a family with limited resources and information to protect themselves and their children’s health. They were not unlike others in the area, in need of assistance and education about how to protect themselves from lead exposure and the vital difference that uncontaminated water can make in their lives.

On that winter’s day in 2008, our sampling team provided only one piece of the puzzle, but every contribution was important. We helped educate and improve the health of the residents and their environment by performing work with care and respect for those we were assisting.

Local governments and EPA provide many services to help minimize environmental threats and health problems. I’m relatively new at EPA and I look forward to coming to work every day. By working here, I get to help others live healthier and more enjoyable lives.

About the Author: Chrislyn Johnson is a Life Scientist with EPA Region 7’s Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division. She holds degrees in biology and photography from the University of Central Missouri. Chrislyn loves all things nature.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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