Superfund News May Not Go Away

February 7, 2018

TipSheet: Superfund News May Not Go Away

To outward appearances, the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program is one thing at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Administrator Scott Pruitt is squarely behind.

Or not. 

Appearances can deceive. Can Pruitt clean up more sites while the Trump administration is asking Congress to cut the budget for doing it?

And environmental journalists should remember that somewhere near most of them there is a toxic waste site. That site has probably been there for years and may be unlikely to go away soon.

Superfund is an old program, started by a 1980 law that responded to the Love Canal disaster in New York. It came back into news focus when Pruitt visited East Chicago, an Indiana community, last April. The neighborhood near an old lead smelter had been designated a Superfund site in 2009.

Some residents there had been living on polluted land for decades before the government told them about it. Residents there had been trying to get more attention to their health problems, and relocation of residents from housing in lead-contaminated areas wasn’t going smoothly (may require subscription).

Following the visit, Pruitt vowed he would take measures to fix the problem — and was soon emphasizing how central Superfund was to EPA’s mission.

Cleanup cash, priorities remain problematic

Funding for Superfund has declined over the decades, partly because Congress in 1995 let lapse one key funding mechanism — a levy on the petrochemical industry.

Today, much of the funding for cleanups comes from “responsible parties,” the companies whose dumping created the problem (or their successors). But collecting the money requires time-consuming lawsuits.

Funds for the most urgent action to protect public health come out of a limited pot of funds appropriated to EPA. President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request asked Congress to cut Superfund appropriations by 30 percent.

Superfund cleanup sign at BoRit asbestos Superfund site in Ambler, Pa. Photo: continent. Flicker Creative Commons

By July of 2017, EPA’s Pruitt was declaring his intention to create a “top 10” (may require subscription) priority list of Superfund sites where public health is threatened for aggressive action. Except, of course, EPA had from the beginning had a National Priorities List of hundreds of sites where health was threatened, and had taken short-term emergency action on many of them.

What wasn’t clear was whether the prioritizing of 10 sites would involve de-prioritizing all the other priority sites.

Later, in December of 2017, Pruitt’s list evolved into a list of 21 sites for “immediate and intense action” (may require subscription). Those sites were chosen by a task force that kept no records. And EPA’s top-21 announcement made clear that no additional money would be spent on those sites.

What has made many Superfund cleanups slow, veterans say, is lack of money, litigation encouraged by the Superfund law itself, the need for studies of how extensive contamination really is, the difficulty of arriving at community consensus, long engineering lead times and the time needed, in many cases, to move huge amounts of dirt. It’s not simply lack of political will or bad management.

Pruitt’s PR campaign on Superfund may be only for the optics. One test will be the Trump 2019 budget request, due out in a few weeks.

How to find Superfund sites

You can find all the official federal sites approved for cleanup on the National Priorities List. There are some 1,188 sites on the list awaiting completion of cleanup. You can search the list in different ways, including by state, here. It is also available in map form.

Sites are added to the NPL largely based on an objective ranking system based on how much threat they present to the public. It is worth remembering that NPL sites are for the most part the worst of the worst. Don’t make the mistake of thinking these are the only hazardous waste sites.

The EPA keeps a bigger list, which you also may want to look at. It is now called the Superfund Enterprise Management System, or SEMS, and it is in database form, online and searchable. It includes sites that are on the NPL, and many that are not. It supersedes, and supposedly includes, an older database called CERCLIS.


From start to finish,

a Superfund cleanup

can take decades.


It is worth checking in with your state hazardous waste response agency, too. Many states have their own cleanup programs and site lists. Some examples are this one from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, this one from Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, this one from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and this one from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Another kind of site you may be interested in is “brownfields.” These are sites not dirty enough for Superfund, or ones that have been cleaned up to some degree. There are an estimated 450,000 of them nationwide. There are federal and state programs aimed at putting these lands to appropriate use (like industrial development), using grants and incentives.

Another EPA resource for finding sites is the “Cleanups in My Community” page, which allows very customized geographical searches, and includes brownfields sites. You may also find it helpful to look at the TOXMAP portal run by the National Library of Medicine.

What to ask about your hazardous waste sites

Every Superfund situation is different — from miles of Hudson river-bottom sediments polluted with General Electric PCBs to the hundreds of square miles of lead-mining wastes in Tar Creek, Okla.

Here’s what you’ll want to know or do:

  • Find out the impact on people and their health. Get the data on toxics in air, water and soil. Find out what effects they are having (or threaten to have) on people’s health.

  • Know the timeline. From start to finish, a Superfund cleanup can take decades. There are many stages along the way — assessment, listing, engineering studies, litigation over financial responsibility, emergency “removal” and an often very long construction of remedial action.

  • Understand the responsible parties. The Superfund law encourages EPA to sue the original polluters to recover the costs of a cleanup. Sometimes they are companies that went out of business decades ago. But often they go bankrupt or change identity shortly after discovering their liability for cleanup. Talk to the lawyers.

  • Understand the process. With Superfund sites, doing it right requires going through a number of steps dictated by law and experience. When reporting, it is important to help your audience understand this. At many steps in the process, there are public meetings you should go to.

  • Visit the site. Understand the scale of whatever particular site interests you. What happens when it rains, when the wind blows or when rivers flood? How does soil type and topography affect the problem? Learn about the groundwater.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 6. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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