Harvey County parks are a popular place to spend a lazy summer afternoon. Families relax at picnic tables, go boating on the lake, or sit on the bank and fish.
While these local public recreation areas are clean and safe, other sites around the country may not be. People still fish in New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts, even though due to industrial contamination, fish caught in the harbor will be unsafe to eat indefinitely.
Some of the most dangerous toxic waste sites around the country have became part of the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund cleanup program. Though some sites are now considered clean by the EPA, toxins and dangers still remain. Cleanups may not guarantee a public park or body of water are safe.
History of the Superfund program
The EPA is responsible for protecting human health at 1,700 hazardous waste sites across the country through the Superfund program. These sites contain chemicals that can cause a range of serious illnesses, from cancer, to birth defects to neurological disorders.
Congress established the Superfund program in 1980 after a series of toxin-contaminated sites gained national attention. Among them was the leaking landfill beneath the neighborhood of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York. The new program's goal was to identify and clean major toxic sites, and when possible to collect damages from the polluters responsible for the contamination.
There are currently 1,322 sites on the EPA's list of Superfund sites, called the National Priorities List. In most cases, sites included on the list have uncontained toxins that pose an active danger to human health.
An EPA cleanup does not mean all toxins are gone. In many cases, it is physically or financially impossible to completely rid a location of toxic materials. Instead, many Superfund cleanups end with restrictions on how a site can be used because the toxins left behind still pose a danger to human health.
But as time passes after a cleanup, no one agency monitors adherence to the restrictions. And notice or awareness of the restrictions fade or fail to remain part of property records. Ultimately, potential dangers remain for the one in four Americans who live within four miles of a Superfund site.
The list of Superfund sites is growing. More than 75 percent of sites now included on the list were added in the first 10 years of the program. Since fiscal year 2010, the EPA has added twice as many sites to the list as it has deleted. In the program's 34-year history, 379 sites have been removed from the list.
The website www.epa.gov/superfund/sites can help you find Superfund sites near where you live. A national map of sites shows several in Kansas, including ground water contamination at 29th and Mead in Wichita.
Federal funding for Superfund cleanups has stagnated over the past 15 years, even as the number of Superfund sites grows. Critics worry financial constraints will only increase the amount of toxins left behind after Superfund cleanups, putting residents at risk.
Planning a cleanup
The goal of every Superfund cleanup, according to the EPA, is to make the site "protective of human health and the environment." In practical terms, that usually means limiting the site's danger of causing cancer or other illnesses. Measuring the danger to human health from one site to another is part of the complicated process.
In general, humans have a one in three chance of getting cancer from any cause. A cleaned Superfund site can only add to that risk by a factor of between one in 10,000 and one in 1 million.
For chemicals that have non-cancer health risks, the site must not expose humans to more than one "reference dose" or safe maximum dose, of the chemical per day. That can include chemicals such as bisphenol A, mercury and toluene.
The EPA uses these risk standards at all Superfund sites. Because the calculations are based on human exposure to toxins, the resulting cleanups do not have to remove all chemicals. The health risk just has to be reduced. That means the EPA's cleanup methods, along with the amount of toxins left behind, vary from site to site.
In determining how much contamination to remove, the EPA considers the different ways humans may come into contact with the toxins. Exposure can come via contaminated air, soil or water, or consuming plants or animals from contaminated environments.
With the point of exposure in mind, the EPA determines how to reduce the source to cut risk to acceptable levels. Options can include removing the toxins, covering or sealing them, or even leaving some in place to let nature reduce the risk over time.
For example, dealing with contaminated soil in a public park can be different from contaminated sediment at the bottom of a river. In the park, the cleanup might involve removing all the topsoil for an immediate result. In the river, there may be restrictions on consuming fish that last for years until the risk is reduced over time as the chemicals break down or are washed away.
The EPA also weighs the current and future uses of a site. Standards and approaches for a residential area, for example, compared to an industrial area may vary. As the EPA develops a cleanup plan for each Superfund site, the agency considers four variables that should have equal weight in its deliberations:
• Cost • Effectiveness • Difficulty • Community acceptance
Cleanup plans also take into account environmental damage, along with human health concerns. Additional state or federal regulations related to the site, and input from other agencies and the public, also are considered.
The EPA itself does not conduct any reviews of the methodology or risk analysis used in final site cleanup plans. The only exception is a cost review of cleanup proposals for "megasites‚" where cleanup costs are expected to exceed $25 million.
In the end, the EPA makes the final decision on each Superfund cleanup plan. And with this site-specific approach, that means tactics and targets for toxic elimination will vary from one site to another. Such variations can be confusing or even alarming to people living near Superfund sites.
For example, there are 43 Superfund sites where more than 2,500 cubic yards of underwater sediment are contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
At 21 of those sites, the EPA's cleanup plan will leave behind one part PCB per million parts sediment that remain. But in Massachusetts‚ New Bedford Harbor site and Ohio's Fields Brook site, the EPA will leave behind 50 parts PCBs per million parts sediment that remain.
When the EPA makes a final decision on how a Superfund site will be cleaned and what level of toxins will remain, those target levels may still violate other state or even federal regulations. The EPA has the authority to waive other regulations as being "technically infeasible" to approve a Superfund cleanup plan.
According to the EPA, for example, Superfund cleanups at sites involving contaminated groundwater waive other regulations at one in 10 sites. The EPA has also issued waivers for Food and Drug Administration rules regarding seafood consumption from contaminated sites.
Again, this means the EPA is approving higher levels of contamination than allowed by other regulations, when the agency feels waivers are needed for an effective cleanup plan.
When a cleanup plan involves leaving toxic contamination behind, the EPA often adds "land use controls" that set restrictions on how a site can be used or establish long-term public health warnings. Prohibitions might include residential uses, digging in the soil, consuming plants or animals from a site, or drinking the water.
Superfund land use controls do not always make the jump from EPA documents to property deeds or local zoning ordinances. That means people buying or renting some properties could be exposed to toxic contaminants.
In 2005, members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works asked the Government Accountability Office to study the effectiveness of land use controls. The GAO found that in many cases the controls did not provide adequate public health protection at former Superfund sites. In its report, GAO said the use of land use controls could still expose the public to toxic dangers because the restrictions were not always "adequately implemented, monitored and enforced."
The EPA does not continuously monitor its own site restrictions. The agency only confirms the restrictions are working during overall reviews of a cleanup every five years. Between these five-year reviews, enforcement of the restrictions is left to states and municipalities. Monitoring and enforcement mechanisms vary from state to state.
Since 2003, 23 states have adopted an "environmental covenants" law that allows states to impose penalties on landowners who do not follow EPA restrictions for contaminated sites. States without these laws each have their own systems for monitoring restrictions on contaminated sites.
A handful of states have proactive monitoring systems similar to one in California. There, a third-party company is hired to track all properties with use restrictions. When someone wants to perform work on a site, they must not only check in with the local planning boards, but also with the third-party company, to ensure there is no danger of contamination or exposure.
The process worked in 2006 when Chevron proposed to drill a well to protect one of its pipelines at the Del Amo Superfund site. The local permitting agency overlooked the fact the drill site was in the area of a benzene groundwater plume. California's third-party monitor identified the danger during a second review of the proposal.
In states without these systems, toxic dangers can develop. The 2005 GAO report cites an example of an unnamed Superfund site where the cleanup plan restricted use of groundwater, which was not safe for drinking. Nonetheless, during the five-year review of the site, the EPA found that a drinking water well had been drilled on the site. Over a year's time, at least 25 million gallons of contaminated water were pumped for use as drinking water.
Superfund under stress
The EPA estimates polluters pay for all or part of the cleanup at 60 percent to 70 percent of Superfund sites. The rest are paid for with federal funds.
But federal funding for the EPA's Superfund cleanups has slowed over the past 15 years. Congress has funded the cleanups with an average of $1.1 billion per year, not adjusting for inflation, meaning the same amount of money pays for less each year. And the drop in available funds comes as the number of sites on the Superfund list grows each year.
When adjusted for inflation, funding for the Superfund program has decreased by 40 percent from 1987 levels. Another GAO report in 2010 found that, to meet its cleanup needs, the EPA would need more than double the financing it is receiving through congressional appropriations.
The Superfund program was originally paid for with federal appropriations and a "polluter's fee" or tax, imposed on the chemical and petroleum industries. That fee expired in 1995 and has not been renewed, though Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) promised in June to sponsor legislation renewing the tax.
Since then, the Superfund has relied solely on appropriations. In fiscal year 2014 Congress budgeted $1.1 billion for the Superfund Program. Less than half of that, $485 million, was spent on actual cleanup.
As more Superfund cleanups leave toxins behind, federal and state authorities have to limit use and access to sites, and add more warnings to limit exposure to toxic chemicals. The EPA's use of land use controls‚ warnings and restrictions after a cleanup has grown, according to the GAO.
• Between 1991 and 1993, only 10 percent of sites removed from the National Priorities List used such controls.
• Between 2001 and 2003, that figure rose to 53 percent of sites.
• For (active) sites where the EPA cleanup strategy was determined between 2001 and 2003, land use controls were part of 83 percent of plans.
Environmental activists and other critics contend the increased use of land use controls indicates cleanups are not being completed at acceptable levels of safety. They blame reduced funding.
"(EPA) project managers see there's not enough money in the budget for a full cleanup, and so they plan to leave more contaminants in place," said Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. "It may be cheaper in the long run to clean more at the beginning, but if they don't have the budget, they kick the can down the road."
Leaving contamination can have unforeseen consequences.
In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Agriculture Street Landfill site in New Orleans, a site removed from the Superfund list three years earlier. The contaminated site had been covered with layers of clean soil. Flooding from the hurricanes brought contaminants back to the surface. The EPA had to conduct a second cleanup.
The EPA says cost and available funding are not the only factors in cleanup decisions, and Superfund remedies continue to be "protective of human health and the environment." According to the EPA, every cleanup is conducted under guidelines outlined in the Superfund legislation. Those guidelines say land use restrictions can help limit human exposure and should be used at Superfund sites in addition to removing toxins. The guidelines prevent land use restrictions from being the "sole remedy" at a site unless the EPA decides other options are not practical.
The rate at which Superfund sites are cleaned also has slowed, something Sen. Booker attributed in Senate testimony in June to the lack of funding. Between fiscal years 1992 and 2000, an average of 80 cleanups were completed each year. That number has been decreasing ever since. Only 14 cleanups were completed in fiscal year 2013.
Monitoring of site restrictions at the state level is rare. The 2005 GAO report generated considerable discussion of the need for monitoring at the state level, according to Sam Puffenbarger of the Association of Solid Waste Management Officials, but only five states have active monitoring systems.
Siegel said without a database to integrate environmental regulations with municipal planning organizations, land use restrictions at former Superfund sites are not effective.
"There are many places where the state may be following up on the EPA controls, but the cities and towns that are approving new projects are not," he said. "The danger is that new construction will renew the risk."
People can take it upon themselves to learn more about nearby Superfund sites. Information and resources are available online from the EPA. Many times similar information is available from state health and environmental departments.
For now, environmental activists like Lois Gibbs, founder of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, say without more money, the EPA will continue to leave more chemicals behind, and site restrictions will not be enough to protect public health.
"The bottom line is that these sites are not going to be cleaned; they'll just be contained," Gibbs said. She believes some contaminated sites removed from the Superfund list in the future will need a second cleanup when site restrictions are forgotten or ignored.
"What we have now is not an actual solution," she said, "it's only a partial fix."
Reporter Ariel Wittenberg, of the New Bedford Standard-Times in New Bedford, Massachusetts, took one month out of her newsroom to research the toxins left behind at Superfund sites and their danger to people who live nearby as part of a GateHouse Media national reporting program. Kansan staff contributed local information to this article.