What Is a Superfund Site?

The site of the former Velsicol chemical plant, one of the costliest contamination cleanups
The site of the former Velsicol chemical plant, one of the costliest contamination cleanups. Jim West/Getty Images

With the rapid development of the petrochemical industry in the mid-20th century, and after more than two hundred years of mining activities, the United States have a troublesome legacy of closed and abandoned sites containing hazardous wastes. What happens to those sites, and who is responsible for them?

It Starts with CERCLA

In 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter proposed legislature which eventually become known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). Then Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Douglas M. Costle called for new hazardous waste regulations: "A rash of recent incidents resulting from improper disposal of hazardous wastes has made it tragically clear that faulty hazardous waste management practices, both past and current, present a grave threat to public health and to the environment". CERCLA was passed in 1980 during the last days of the 96th Congress. Notably, the bill was introduced by Edmund Muskie, a Maine Senator and affirmed environmentalist who went on to become Secretary of State.

Then, What Are Superfund Sites?

If you have not heard the term CERCLA before, it is because it is more often referred to by its nickname, the Superfund Act. The EPA describes the Act as providing “a Federal Superfund to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites as well as accidents, spills, and other emergency releases of pollutants and contaminants into the environment.”

Specifically, CERCLA:

  • Regulates closed and abandoned sites containing hazardous wastes.
  • Establishes who is liable and should be responsible for the cleanup of those closed sites (generally, it is the owners, current or previous).
  • Sometimes no person or corporation can be found liable for the cleanup of the site. In those situations, the EPA funds the operations. In order to conduct these costly cleaning jobs, CERCLA levies a tax on the petroleum and chemical industry and established a trust fund to draw from (a “Superfund”, hence the name).

Failing infrastructure can be dismantled, leaking reservoirs drained, and hazardous waste can be removed and treated off site. Remedial plans can also be put in place to stabilize or treat the waste and contaminated soil or water right at the site.

Where Are These Superfund Sites?

As of May 2016, there were 1328 Superfund sites distributed all across the country, with an additional 55 proposed for inclusion. The distribution of sites is not even however, being mostly clustered in heavily industrialized regions. There are large concentrations of sites in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. In New Jersey, the township of Franklin alone has 6 Superfund sites. Other hot spots are in the Midwest and in California. Many of the western Superfund sites are abandoned mining sites, rather than closed manufacturing plants. The EPA’s EnviroMapper allows you to explore all the EPA-permitted facilities near your home, including Superfund sites. Make sure to open the EnviroFacts drop-down menu, and click on Superfund sites. The EnviroMapper is a valuable tool when you are looking for your new home.

Some common types of Superfund sites include old military installations, nuclear manufacturing sites, wood product mills, metal smelters, mine tailings containing heavy metals or acid mine drainage, landfills, and a variety of former manufacturing plants.

Do They Actually Get Cleaned Up?

In May 2016 the EPA stated that 391 sites were removed from their Superfund list after cleanup work was completed. In addition, workers had finished rehabilitating portions of 62 sites.

Some Examples of Superfund Sites

  • The Interstate Lead Company in Leeds, Alabama operated a lead smelter and lead battery recycling facility between 1970 and 1992. The plant’s activities contributed to contaminated groundwater, surface water, and soil. Since its inclusion on the Superfund Site list in 1986, over 230,000 tons of contaminated soil has been removed from the plant, and efforts to decontaminate the groundwater are under way.
  • In Jacksonville, Florida, residential neighborhoods were contaminated by ash from a nearby municipal incinerator. The ash mixed in the yard soil, bringing with it lead, arsenic, PAHs, and dioxin. So far 1,500 properties have been cleaned up, in what must have been a rather disruptive process.
  • The Celotex Corporation Site in Chicago is also located in a residential area, where 70 years of processing coal tar led to heavily contaminated yards. Here too dangerous PAHs are problematic, and have been found down to 18 feet below the surface. The main Celotex site has been cleaned up and turned into a community recreational park with among other things athletic fields, a skate park, and community gardens.
  • The Savannah River Site is a Department of Energy nuclear research and production facility in coastal South Carolina. Past nuclear weapons production activities have led to soil and water contamination by radioactive materials and other harmful chemicals. A variety of cleanup measures have been taken, including the closure of nuclear reactors, capping of radioactive waste dumps, and soil removal. In some places, high pressure steam was directed underground to strip away pollutants. Today, significant biodiversity conservation research is carried out in the wetlands and forests within the Savannah River Site.
  • The Anaconda Copper Mining Company processed copper in the Deer Lodge Valley, Montana, for almost a century. The result is 300 square miles of tailings containing arsenic, copper, cadmium, lead, and zinc, and the famous Berkeley Pit. The company was eventually sold and the new owner, Atlantic Richfield Company (now a subsidiary of BP), is now responsible for the massive cleanup operations.
  • The largest residential lead contamination site in the country is the Omaha Lead Superfund Site in Nebraska. Lead-contaminated soil covers 27 square miles of urban area (for a total of 40,000 properties), the result of lead smelting operations along the Missouri River. The EPA was called for assistance in 1998 when it was discovered that children were frequently diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels. So far over 12,000 yards have been remediated, usually by excavating the contaminated soil and replacing it with clean fill.