EPA Continues War on Contaminated Sites With Superfund

Fri May 07, 2004 - Northeast Edition
Pete Sigmund

We’re winning an important war on terror.

In this case, the terror lurks in the earth in the form of hazardous substances, which, if allowed to remain, would endanger lives.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conquered the menace at 896 sites.

Yet, new sites, added to its priority list each year to be attacked and conquered, still cause shudders.

You can’t drink the water in numerous areas unless it’s treated against deadly toxins — even arsenic.

Ground is contaminated at many abandoned manufacturing plants, which left poisons in piles as if they were compost heaps.

Sediment in New York’s Hudson River is so poisoned that it will require hundreds of millions of dollars before its waters are safe.

These unseen enemies can cause birth defects, cardiac disorders, infertility, leukemia and a host of other sometimes-fatal problems.

EPA says it has identified the majority of the most dangerous sites since 1980 (though some may still lie undiscovered) through its Superfund Program. It’s justly proud of hundreds of success stories throughout the nation. Decades of cleanup work, costing many millions of dollars and involving thousands of contractors, remain before the country is relatively safe.

Most Dangerous Sites

What’s Superfund? What has it done? What remains to be done?

Congress created the Superfund in 1980 to identify and clean up hazardous material spills and contaminated areas. Since then, EPA has assessed approximately 38,000 waste sites, reported by states, local communities and citizens, and EPA has created a computerized database containing potentially dangerous locations that need to be further evaluated for possible Superfund action. Sites that score high enough on the agency’s hazard ranking system are eligible for a National Priorities List (NPL) of locations, which pose “a significant and substantial threat to human health or the environment” and need Superfund action.

As of April 27, 2004, a total of 1,518 sites were on the NPL. EPA has completed construction activities on 896 of these, returning them to safe conditions (and sometimes beautifying the area in the process). Forty of these sites were cleaned up in Fiscal 2003. EPA also has temporarily evacuated thousands of people, destroyed thousands of homes that had been dangerously contaminated, and demolished numerous old factories and even schools.

Out of Money?

Congress authorized a trust fund of $1.6 billion for Superfund cleanups when it passed the original Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980. It added $7 billion when it reauthorized the program for five years in 1986, and then authorized $5.1 billion in 1991.

Congress hasn’t reauthorized the program since 1991, simply allocating money each year.

The Superfund is used primarily for “orphan sites,” when the companies or people responsible for the contamination can’t be found, can’t carry out the cleanup, or can’t pay (as when they’re behind bars).

In most cases (approximately 70 percent) responsible parties pay for the cleanups. They’ve shelled out at least $21 billion so far.

Most of the money for the trust fund originally came from a tax on companies in the chemical and petroleum industries. This tax expired in 1995. Since then, the fund has been gradually depleted, drawing upon money remaining from the tax, from “cost recovery” funds received for its own cleanups, and from general revenue.

Now the cushion is gone. Beginning this year, all Superfund money comes from general revenue. The Fiscal 2004 budget for Superfund is $1.257 billion, down $8 million from 2003.

The Great Awakening

To understand the Superfund program, one needs to recall a 3,200-ft. long abandoned channel full of deadly substances near Niagara Falls, NY, which helped awaken the country to the lurking terror in 1978. Ironically named Love Canal, it contained thousands of tons of dioxins from a former chemical company, leading to the relocation of 7,500 people, and forcing 230 homes and an entire school to be razed. It has taken more than a quarter century and more than $300 million, but Love Canal is about to be removed from the priority list.

Many thousands of deadly locations have been identified, and hundreds cleaned up, since then. Permanent “remedial” cleanups cost an average of $25 million each — though some reach hundreds of millions and others only a few million.

One of the largest and most serious remedial projects was at Times Beach, MO, where roads and parking lots had been sprayed with oil containing dioxin from a plant that had been manufacturing Agent Orange for the Vietnam War. Several hundred residents were evacuated and more than 260,000 tons of dioxin-contaminated soil were replaced.

In East Woburn, MA, lethal volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from a plant seeped into municipal wells, causing the deaths of nine children from leukemia.

Two men sprayed methyl parathion, a toxic anti-roach pesticide, into approximately 2,000 homes in southern Mississippi and Alabama. Many residents were hospitalized. Dogs and cats died. The EPA tore out the interiors of 450 homes and 20 businesses in a $41-million remediation paid for by the Superfund.

EPA says the war is far from over, but that it’s winning.

“I think we’ve got most of the really big, bad, dangerous large sites,” said Rich Cahill, a spokesperson for EPA’s Region 2 (New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands) in New York, NY. “Just because we have listed only 1,518 for priority cleanup, it doesn’t mean work isn’t taking place on many others. These other sites are often handled by other authorities. The program for federal facilities has its own fund. The military has its own fund. States are often pursuing their own cleanups through their enforcement authorities There’s much more coordination between state, federal and local professionals in the hazardous waste field than in the 1970s.”

So there are no more Love Canals out there?

“Well, what’s the slogan, ’Never Say Never?,’” Cahill said. “There probably are some dangerous sites hidden out there, but I think we’ve caught most of them. We’re in the mode now where we’re finding smaller sites at more discrete locations. Many of the original problems with hazardous waste resulted from bad business practices in businesses large and small. Now, because of Superfund and other legislation, there are many more checks and balances on how companies handle their waste, and there is much more outreach through organizations like the Chemical Manufacturers Association or the dry cleaners national organization. They make people aware of the regulations, and how they can comply with them without going out of business.

“There may come a time — within our lifetimes, and I’m young yet at 57 — when it will be very, very rare to hear of a site becoming a Superfund site. I think, though, that we have to be vigilant — and we are … and we have to coordinate with these different levels of government to find those sites that are a little more off the beaten path. There’s been a great deal of progress in making the environment of the U.S. much safer, but we’re not complacent.”

The EPA told CEG that cleaning up the PCB-contaminated Hudson River in New York and the Bunker Hill smelting site in Coeur D’Alene, ID, are now among the Agency’s most critical current projects.

The Hudson River site is a 40-mi. stretch of water between Mechanicville and Fort Edward, NY, where the General Electric Co. discharged an estimated 1.1-million lbs. of PCBs. New York State has identified 40 “hot spots” in this stretch where sediments are contaminated with greater than 50 parts per million (ppm) of PCBs. Cleaning up this site will take at least 10 years.

New Danger Zones

Before adding a site to its NPL list, EPA first proposes them for careful evaluation, inviting input from all sources, including those associated with the problem.

The latest sites to be proposed (on March 8, 2004) show how much work still has to be done. The sites range from Long Island, NY, to Heidelburg Township, PA, Evansville, IN, Annapolis, MO, Picayune, MS, and Grants, NM.

The proposed site in Long Island (Peninsula Boulevard), for instance, involves ground water, contaminated with tetrachloroethylene (PCE), seeping into the layers beneath a predominantly residential area in the Town of Hewlett. This water impacts 43 wells in the Long Island Water Corporation’s Plant 5 well field, which supplies drinking water to 6,400 people.

Water has to be treated to remove the PCE before it reaches the public.

The active wells all draw water from the Jameco Aquifer at depths of about 150 ft., which EPA says is “hydraulically connected to the underlying Magothy Aquifer, which is the primary source of public drinking water in Nassau County.”

The contamination, called a “ground water plume,” was discovered when the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation, investigating a dry cleaning business, found almost 6 parts per million (PPM) of PCE in shallow ground water around the area approximately 15 years ago. The well water has been treated ever since to make it safe.

“On Long Island, it’s a standard feature that drinking water has to be treated,” said Cahill. “Sites have been contaminated since the 1950s by many different sources, including dry cleaners, gas stations, other small businesses and large companies that disposed of their wastes improperly before federal rules required them to treat their waste in an environmentally safe manner. Actually, about half of the sites being cleaned up in New York and New Jersey have ground water contamination. Water is a precious resource and it has been damaged.”

Cahill said residents drinking water from private wells must be very careful: “It behooves them to check the quality of the water very frequently, just as is done with public systems.”

The Enemy Within

Here are case studies of other proposed NPL sites throughout the country. EPA is following similar procedures for all of them, determining the extent of the danger and then requesting public comment (usually over a six-month period), studying them intensively, and making plans for cleaning them up completely.


Sites may lay dormant for many years, polluting streams or endangering people, only to be discovered by local people or state or federal agencies. The latest list includes substantial amounts of arsenic where pesticide was once manufactured in Heidelberg Township, Berks County, PA. A resident near the former facility discovered two piles of a grayish-white material, which was found to contain high concentrations of both arsenic and lead.

EPA has found arsenic in sediments of streams in the area and says drainage from the soil empties into a creek, which joins a state-designated scenic river.

Acid Drainage from Abandoned Mines

Between 1863 and 1918, more than nine million lbs. of copper were mined at Pike Hill, almost 2,000 ft. high, near Corinth, VT. Now approximately 20,000 tons of brownish-orange tailings (dumps from mines) stand in five large piles at the site. Rain passing through them produces sulphuric acid, dissolving copper and other metal residues, which pass downstream into Pike Hill Brook, which the state now lists as impaired water.

Both the Waits River and Connecticut River fisheries are within the surface water pathway.

“Based on sediment and surface water samples of the Waits River, inorganic contaminants attributable to the mine are documented within the fishery and pose a potential health risk,” said EPA in proposing the mine site for the NPL.

In 1993, the mine began smoking. The U.S. Bureau of Mines said this was due to “spontaneous oxidation and combustion of reactive sulfides present in the mine fill.”

Emissions Into Air

In January 2002, employees at the Diaz Chemical Corp. (now in bankruptcy) in Holley, NY, 25 mi. west of Syracuse, overheated a reactor vessel, ruptured a safety valve and released 5 gallons of chemicals as solidified drops containing chlorofluorophenol (CFP). The drops fell on houses, cars and a child’s swing set about a third of a mile away. The release also could be smelled 12 miles away. (Ironically, the company specialized in producing aromatic compounds.)

(Further information on Superfund, including descriptions of NPL sites, is available on www.epa.gov/superfund).