Surefire Stories Near You: Start with Superfund Data Tools

April 28, 2010

Quick! Where's the Superfund site nearest you? If you haven't checked recently, your audience may thank you for digging deeper. Here are some story-finding tools.

The "Superfund" hazardous-waste cleanup program, enacted by Congress in 1980 after the LoveCanal toxic emergency, established federal supervision of cleanup at thousands of hazardous waste sites — many long abandoned by the dumpers. Congress based it on the "polluter pays" principle — although the polluters were often hard to find. The superfund liability rules spawned lawsuits as "responsible parties" jockeyed over who would pay what. Initially, emergency cleanups were funded by a tax on petrochemical feedstocks, but that tax expired after 1995 and Congress did not renew it.

One major tool, the "National Priorities List," includes about 1,280 of the nation's worst sites. Most of these are in some stage of cleanup, and at many the pollution is somewhat under control. But the process is long and complex, and "cleanup" is a relative concept once toxic chemicals get underground and start moving. Remedies often look more like permanent containment than "cleanup." In the program's three decades, some 341 sites have been deleted from the list.

Data on hazardous waste sites is online and searchable. On the EPA site, you can punch in your zip code and find out what hazardous waste sites are near you. But there are tens of thousands of sites not on the NPL, and finding them is fairly easy.

  • National Priorities List: Portal to EPA data.
  • CERCLIS Database: It stands for Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System. It contains just about every potential hazardous waste site EPA knows about, more than 40,000 of them, including less serious and unevaluated ones. It's online and searchable.
  • TOXMAP: Maintained by the National Library of Medicine, it allows you and your audience to see the distribution of toxic sites in map form. It actually includes Toxics Release Inventory as well as Superfund data.
  • State Hazardous Waste Site Lists: Many states have their own hazardous waste cleanup programs, and also have their own databases of sites not included in CERCLIS. The administration and format of the lists are different in each state. You can find a list of state agencies running hazardous waste programs here and proceed from there.