The Many Faces of Superfund

By Barnes Johnson

Sitting adjacent to one of the rarest ecosystems in the world—a freshwater beach dune system—is the Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC) Superfund site. Within its boundaries lies Waukegan Harbor, once called by some “the world’s worst PCB mess.” I recently traveled to the OMC site, and the visit reminded me of the multi-faceted nature of Superfund cleanups—how they affect not only the environmental well-being of a community but also its economic and social spheres.

Multiple industrial activities contributed to the OMC site’s contamination, which affects the groundwater, soil and lake sediments. These activities assaulted the harbor and surrounding area not only with PCB contamination but also industrial solvents, heavy metals and other toxic organic compounds for decades.

I went to Waukegan with my Superfund colleagues and others from EPA’s Upper Midwest Regional office to mark an important milestone in the OMC site’s Superfund cleanup: the kick-off of the final dredging to eliminate the harbor’s last vestiges of contaminated sediment. The dredging is also a critical step in removing the harbor as an “area of concern” from the list of toxic hot spots identified in the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The effort in Waukegan is a great example of cross-office collaboration between EPA’s Great Lakes program and its Superfund program.

The land use variation surrounding the OMC site, which currently includes industrial, marine and recreational uses, brings impressive landscape texture. Once cleaned up, the City of Waukegan hopes to expand the site’s land use to include residential and retail components, aspirations which are part of the site’s overall redevelopment. This reuse will lead to economic opportunities including jobs and a broader local tax base; it will complement the economic contribution the Superfund cleanup itself has already afforded through the creation of 280 jobs.

I was also struck by the complexity of the OMC cleanup. The final dredging project, anticipated to be completed by the summer of 2013, will remove over 150,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment.

I was impressed by the substantial influence and commitment of the Waukegan citizens’ advisory group (CAG), which was formed more than 20 years ago. The CAG’s focus extends beyond the Superfund aspects of the harbor; through more than 240 meetings, the group has tackled a broad set of issues challenging the harbor’s well-being and has demonstrated its commitment to restoring both the community and this vital ecosystem.

About the author: Barnes Johnson is the Deputy Director of the Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation and has been with EPA for over 25 years in a variety of positions. In addition to Superfund, Barnes’ EPA work has included positions in the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, and the Office of Solid Waste (currently named the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery). He holds a masters degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Management and Applied Statistics.

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