A Federal Superfund Site Near You May Hold a Great Story

January 15, 2009
A major Superfund site in western Montana, the Anaconda copper smelter, was demolished in 1981. Its 585-foot smokestack (30 feet higher than the Washington Monument) was left standing. Photo by Banjodog/Wikipedia

By JOAQUIN SAPIEN

A federal Superfund site near you may hold a great story The Center for Public Integrity's 2007 project, "Wasting Away: Superfund's Toxic Legacy," provides much more than motivation. It can help local reporters cover those sites in or near your community with depth that previously could be achieved only by wearing out a lot of shoe leather or consuming a lot of your employer's dough.

Most of us have a Superfund site somewhere near us. More than half the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of one of the 1,304 Superfund sites listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the nation's worst toxic waste dumps. So it's likely you can find an engaging story at one or more of these sites in your area.

The Center's spring 2007 project found that nearly three decades after EPA launched the landmark initiative, it is desperately short of money, creating a backlog of sites that continue to menace the environment and, quite often, the health of nearby residents.

While the Center focused on investigating the Superfund program from a national level, each Superfund site presents an important opportunity for local environmental reporters to play a watchdog role.

In its investigation, the Center reviewed data, obtained from the EPA through more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests, and interviewed dozens of experts inside and outside the agency.

Among the findings:

• Cleanup work was started at about 145 sites in the previous six years, while the startup rate was nearly three times as high for the previous six years before.

• During previous years, an average of 42 sites a year reached what the EPA calls "construction complete," compared with an average of 79 sites a year in the six years befores. Construction complete is reached when all the cleanup remedies have been installed at a site.

• Superfund officials keep details about the program secret, meeting behind closed doors to rank which sites are the most dangerous and in need of immediate attention. The ranking is "confidential" because the agency does not want polluters to know which sites are priorities and which ones aren't. Some EPA insiders say the secrecy is intended to avoid provoking the public into demanding a solution from Congress.

• Four companies connected to some of America's worst toxic waste sites escaped more than half a billion dollars in pollution cleanup costs by declaring bankruptcy, potentially passing the tab onto taxpayers. Analysis of court documents shows that these four companies, included on the EPA's list of 100 companies connected to the largest number of Superfund sites, could have owed the federal government about $750 million to clean up their sites.

Here are four important questions to ask when you begin investigating your local Superfund site, with links to relevant information on the Center's website.

Question One: Where is the closest Superfund site to your hometown?

To find Superfund sites in your state, in a quick, accessible manner, go to: http://projects.publicintegrity.org/Superfund/AllStates.aspx

Question Two: How dangerous is your site?

A key question to ask about any Superfund site is: What chemicals have contaminated the site? Can people be exposed to those chemicals? What is EPA doing to ensure that isn't happening?

The Center's website provides an in-depth profile for every site in the country, and includes information on exactly what contaminants have been found on-site. Here is an example: http://projects.publicintegrity.org/Superfund/Site.aspx?act=0902680

To learn more about the individual chemicals listed, simply click on the link titled "More Info" to go to a toxicological profile for the chemical. The profiles are written by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which provides scientific analysis of Superfund sites to the public and EPA. These profiles outline the potential dangers of being exposed to specific chemicals.

While having a breadth of knowledge about the kind of contaminants that lurk at your local Superfund site is important, you will also want to know how people can be exposed to these pollutants. The EPA has developed a special designation for sites with dangerous materials that could reach and harm people: "human exposure not under control."

When the Center released its investigation, 114 Superfund sites fell into this category. EPA considers human exposure to be "uncontrolled" at a Superfund site when people might be able to come into contact with the contamination by venturing onto the site itself or simply being near it.

Another EPA designation to look for is "Groundwater migration not under control." These are where contaminants on a Superfund site could affect groundwater near the site. Be careful. Superfund experts warned that some sites that are deemed "under control" clearly still had problems. Richard Clapp, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health's Environmental Health Department, gave us one example.

"The Lipari landfill is supposedly controlled, but there is definitely ongoing exposure there," said Clapp. "It is a huge landfill with a fence around it, and there are holes in the fence" that would allow children to pass through to play in the landfill. If you can, be sure to check the site out yourself, and look for ways that people might be able to enter it. Don't endanger yourself, of course. Be familiar with how people might be exposed before you set foot near the place, and take steps to avoid that. It's important.

Question Three: Is your site being cleaned up? If not, what is the holdup? If so, who is in charge of the cleanup?

We found that dozens of Superfund sites lingered on a waiting list to be cleaned up, but it took years for them to get the necessary funding. In fact, the Superfund program is in such dire financial straits that EPA officials told us that they have had to delay needed work at some hazardous sites, use money left over from other cleanups — which itself is dwindling — and resort to cheap, less effective fixes.

Ideally the cleanup process is supposed to work something like this: EPA discovers the site and proposes it to the National Priorities List, the nation's list of the most contaminated areas of the country. Then the agency performs an immediate emergency removal of waste if necessary. Next, EPA drafts a plan to get the site permanently cleaned up. It then installs the necessary tools to remove the waste on an ongoing basis, until it is cleaned up enough to be deleted from the list.

If the EPA can find a financially viable polluter to perform this work, it is supposed to force the polluter to do so. This process can take decades, and it's important to know what stage your Superfund site is in, and how long it's been there. You can get a jumpstart on this by visiting the Center's profiles on each individual site. In some cases, the polluter or polluters takes on the site from the beginning, with EPA oversight.

Learning the Superfund vernacular can be an arduous process, but fortunately, the Center's website for "Wasting Away" includesa bevy of helpful information to help get you started. See http://projects.publicintegrity.org/Superfund/

Each step in the cleanup process comes with its own set of documents that will help you track the site's cleanup progress. At most Superfund sites, the assessment of the damage is known as a "remedial investigation." That leads to a cleanup plan called a "feasibility study" that should examine different options for treatment, with price tags attached and some explanation about the efficacy of each.

This leads to a "record of decision" – the agency's final word on what will be required as a "remedy."

You should also contact the contractor being hired to carry out the cleanup. Sometimes the contractor can provide more details than the EPA can about what is happening at the site. Also, we found that at least three companies linked by the EPA to hazardous waste sites are being paid by the government to clean up their own sites. Who knows? Maybe you will find a fourth.

When you get a cleanup plan, look for a price tag. Compare it to the other proposed cleanups. We found that cleanup managers were often forced to select the cheapest, least effective plans to clean up sites due to financial constraints.

Question Four: Who polluted the site?

When EPA discovers a site and lists it on the National Priorities List, the first step that it takes is to find a "potentially responsible party," a company that could be liable for the pollution and pay for the cleanup. There can be hundreds of potentially responsible parties at any given Superfund site. The Center's Superfund website profiles list as many polluters for each site as we could identify through EPA's databases.

If EPA can't find a potentially responsible party, it's supposed to clean up the site itself. Later, it can seek to charge the polluter for the cleanup. We found that the amount of money the agency recovered from these companies has fallen by half in the past six fiscal years, compared with the previous six years.

Once you identify the potentially responsible parties, or PRPs, you can see, using the Center's website, what levers of influence they are pulling in Washington.

The Center posted a searchable database that contains more than 10,000 trips taken by EPA officials and paid for by private companies. In total the trips cost more than $12 million. The trips were taken between October 1997 and March 2006. Here is a link to the website: http://projects.publicintegrity.org/Superfund/TripsPage.aspx

With a leaked document in one hand, and EPA's databases in the other, we were also able to determine who the top 100 Superfund polluters were. And we tracked down exactly how much money these companies spent lobbying and on campaign contributions.

Here is a link to the story on the top 100 polluters: http://projects.publicintegrity.org/superfund/report.aspx?aid=849

"Wasting Away" won a Society of Environmental Journalists award for outstanding online reporting; a Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists for independent non-deadline reporting in the online category; and an Association of Healthcare Journalists award for online journals.

Joaquin Sapien is a reporter for ProPublica, a non-profit investigative newsroom in New York City. He was previously with the Center for Public Integrity.

JOAQUIN SAPIEN