10 Examples of Why the Superfund Program Matters

Debris and mud
Photo: Jeffrey/Flickr

The U.S. Superfund program was created in 1980 to clean up the country's most toxic places. It gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) new authority to identify the parties responsible for noxious hazards nationwide, and to make them clean up their messes on their own dime. The program (formally titled the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA) is vital for keeping corporations from ruining our land, air and water without consequence.

Today, more than 1,300 sites are on the program's national priorities list. One might exist near you, since about 53 million Americans live within 3 miles of a Superfund site.

That's why it's worth keeping tabs on the successes and setbacks of the Superfund program. Its original funding source — taxes paid by polluters — was allowed to expire in 1995, and congressional funding has been dwindling for years. The Trump administration has proposed further budget cuts, yet despite meager funds, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has also pledged to ramp up the agency's focus on certain Superfund sites.

To illustrate the ongoing importance of this program, here's a closer look at 10 of the country's most prominent Superfund sites.

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Love Canal, New York

Photo: EPA (early 1980s)/ Wikimedia Commons (2012)

Love Canal, often cited as the inspiration for CERCLA, is an unlikely name for one of the most alarming toxic waste sites in the country's history. At the turn of the 20th century, the site was planned as a dream community in Niagara Falls, New York. The project had fallen on hard times by 1910, however, and in the 1920s the land was turned into a dump for tens of thousands of tons of chemical waste.

Aware of the site's history, the Niagara Falls School Board bought the land for $1 in 1953 from Hooker Chemical Co. (now Occidental Petroleum Corp.). A school and about 100 homes were built on the site, which had been covered with earth. After heavy rainstorms in 1978, the buried chemicals leached out of their rotting drum containers, and nearby residents experienced a subsequent spike in birth defects, miscarriages and diseases; trees and gardens also started turning black and dying.

Love Canal was removed from the national priorities list in 2004. Most toxic areas of exposure have been reburied and resealed. Areas just outside "ground zero" have been successfully restored, and more than 200 homes have been sold there.

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Tar Creek, Oklahoma

Photo: Kelly/Flickr

Located in the towns of Picher and Cardin, Oklahoma, the Tar Creek Superfund site was designated in 1983. The towns had to be abandoned after lead dust from surrounding piles of chat (a toxic mining byproduct), some measuring as high as 10 stories, blew into the neighborhoods. The lead and other toxins also seeped into groundwater, ponds and streams.

About 22 percent of the children were found to have blood lead concentrations above the threshold considered dangerous by federal standards. The miscarriage rate in the region was reportedly more than 24 percent.

To date, more than 2 million tons of waste and contaminated soil has been removed, yet Tar Creek is still a long way from being declared safe. Nevertheless, locals remain optimistic they will someday reclaim their community.

"Just removing the chat piles alone could take 30 years if you could move out 100 train car loads each day," Tyler Powell, office director for Oklahoma Secretary of the Environment, told the Tulsa World in 2011. "But we are not leaving the chat piles. We are going to restore the land to what it was."

A documentary has also been made detailing the tragedy at Tar Creek.

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Pearl Harbor Naval Complex, Hawaii

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The site of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 remains an ominous place even today, but for reasons that go beyond the shadow of war. In the years following the attack, intense and toxic industrial activity rose sharply. It wasn't until the 1980s that at least 30 hazardous waste sources were identified within the grounds of the complex.

Even worse, the waste was suspected to have leaked into Oahu's precious groundwater wells, which are the water source for more than 100,000 residents in the Honolulu area. The site also neighbors a national wildlife refuge. Cleanup efforts continue today.

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Gowanus Canal, New York

Photo: Missy S./Flickr

A more recent addition (2010) to the Superfund program's national priorities list, the Gowanus Canal is a murky, sewage-filled waterway that runs straight through the population center of Brooklyn, New York. Although the canal has long been at the center of environmental concerns, awareness recently ramped up after the construction of the Barclays Center (home of the Brooklyn Nets), which introduced excess stress on the surrounding sewage infrastructure.

The problems go beyond just sewage overflow, however. The canal is one of the nation's most extensively contaminated water bodies, containing everything from PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics. And yet, it is also still used by the public for recreational activities and even fishing.

In 2013, a dolphin that had inadvertently swum into the canal made headlines after it died while struggling to get out.

The EPA has identified more than two dozen parties responsible for the Gowanus Canal's condition, and finalized its cleanup plan in 2013. The effort — which includes debris removal, dredging and other remediation — isn't expected to be complete until at least 2022.

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Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area, Montana

Photo: NASA

One of the largest Superfund sites, the Silver Bow Creek/Butte area features more than 500 underground mines and four open-pit mines, including the Berkeley Pit (pictured) with its ancillary tailings ponds, waste dumps and acid leach pads. This pit — which has since been flooded with acidic, metal-contaminated water — might just be the pit from hell. The water contains so much dissolved metal that materials can be mined directly from the water. In 1995, a flock of migrating snow geese died in the Berkeley Pit. Necropsies found the acid water had eaten away at esophageal tissue and damaged internal organs.

The area, designated a Superfund site in 1983, has become such a symbol for toxicity that it has been turned into a tourist attraction.

A water treatment plant now stands along the pit, capable of treating 5 million gallons of water per day. Even so, it's a race against time, as the water level is expected to reach the natural water table by 2020, which means mine water will spill into the local groundwater.

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Murray Smelter, Utah

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (1922) / Edgar Zuniga Jr. (2009)

The Murray Smelter site in Salt Lake County, Utah, is a real Superfund success story. Formerly the site of a huge lead smelter operated by ASARCO from 1872 until 1949, the land has been reclaimed as commercial territory and is currently home to a Costco (inset photo).

The site had a long road to recovery. Murray Smelter was responsible for widespread lead and arsenic contamination of the region's soil, groundwater and surface water. EPA began investigating in 1995, and gave the site its highest overall hazard ranking. The cleanup has since been deemed complete, and the site now meets all land-revitalization goals.

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Lipari Landfill, New Jersey

Photo: Google Street View

Often referred to as one of the worst toxic dump sites in U.S. history, Lipari Landfill in New Jersey was given the third highest overall hazard score ever bestowed by the EPA. Though it was only about 6 acres in size, it was the dumping ground for about 46,000 barrels of chemicals and 2,000 tons of solid industrial waste from 1958 to 1971. The landfill was not properly lined, so it didn't take long for the hazardous materials to seep into the groundwater. Fruit orchards are also nearby.

Local lakes were closed to the public, though many people may have continued to swim and fish. A 1989 study revealed area residents were at greater risk of adult leukemia and of having babies with low birth weight.

The cleanup project is massive and is ongoing. By 1995, more than $100 million had already been spent on the efforts, which included removing a great deal of the contaminated soil to a properly lined landfill. The polluted Alcyon Lake was drained and had its sediment removed and replaced. It was reopened for recreation in October 1995; this photo shows it in 2005.

Remediation continues at the landfill, which today mostly involves the removal of vast quantities of volatile organic compounds.

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Portland Harbor, Oregon

Photo: Robert Crum/Shutterstock

Oregon's Willamette River, which runs through Portland, is one of the most polluted waterways in the U.S. Throughout its length, the river is lined with industrial plants and agricultural lands that have been using it as a dumping ground for decades. Sewage has regularly overflowed into its waters, and by the 1920s it was essentially transformed into an open sewer. It was listed as a Superfund site in 2000.

The worst problems are in the river's lower sections, where the contaminants collect. This area, roughly between Swan and Sauvie islands, is also in major industrial shipping channels.

Efforts to clean up Portland Harbor are complicated because Portland's sewage infrastructure remains compromised, and the site lies in a cumulative zone that collects pollution occurring all across the river's vast length. As a result, cleaning up the site provides only a temporary fix until the many pollution sources can be eliminated.

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Industri-plex, Massachusetts

Photo: EPA

Merrimac Chemical Co. and its successor, Monsanto Co., take the blame for this toxic place. Just 12 miles from Boston, Industri-plex was a plant for manufacturing everything from insecticides and explosives to acids and countless other chemicals. The site represents about 130 years of chemical manufacturing overall, and has been leaching dangerous pollutants for at least that long.

To make matters worse, the site exudes a pervasive "rotten egg" odor due to hydrogen sulfide gas generated by the decay of the buried animal hides from glue-manufacturing wastes.

Industri-plex was designated a Superfund site in 1981, and cleanup efforts have been extensive. The site now houses a regional transportation center (inset photo) and a Target store.

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Hudson River, New York

Photo: EPA

The Hudson River is one of the nastiest major waterways in the U.S., and in 1984 a 200-mile stretch of the river, from Hudson Falls to New York City, received Superfund status. Due to the huge scope of this cleanup, the river has been called the largest Superfund site in the country.

The river's main issue is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dumped by manufacturing facilities on the Upper Hudson run by General Electric from 1947 to 1977. The PCBs have been linked to severe contamination of fish, enough to cause rapid evolutionary change in some species. Humans can be harmed just by contact with contaminated water, with potential health risks ranging from lower IQ to cancer.

Recreational fishing in the river has been banned due to the contamination, and water polluted with PCBs can no longer be used for agricultural purposes.

The Hudson River Superfund cleanup is one of the most aggressive efforts ever proposed to revive a polluted river, and has reportedly cost General Electric more than $1.5 billion to complete. Since the cleanup began in 2009, about 2.75 million cubic yards of sediment have been removed, including 310,000 pounds of PCBs — twice what was originally estimated.