One out of every 20 Americans lives within one mile of a Superfund site.
That share increases to 16% of the US population when considering who lives within three miles of these sites.
But what makes a polluted area part of the Superfund program? How does it work? And who pays for it all?
What is a Superfund Site?
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), more commonly known as Superfund.
The legislation empowered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remediate hazardous spills and sites and also authorized the agency to make those responsible for the pollution clean it up themselves or pay for the EPA’s cleanup efforts.
The EPA and state environmental agencies use the Hazard Ranking System (HRS) to assess and score polluted sites around the country. The HRS generates a score from 0 to 100 based on the actual or potential release of hazardous substances to the air, surface water, or groundwater.
A score of 28.5 and above will land the site on the National Priorities List, meaning they are eligible for cleanup under the Superfund Program. (You can check out the list for yourself.)
Who Funds the Superfund?
Given the name, it sounds like Superfund sites must involve a lot of money. And that’s true. Cleanups can last well over a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more. But who’s paying?
The Superfund law was designed with Polluter Pays Principle in mind. This principle, found in both US and EU laws, means that the entity responsible for the pollution should pay for the costs of the environmental damage and cleanup.
For Superfund sites, the EPA identifies Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs), who are then liable for the cleanup costs. PRPs can be the current owner or operators of a polluted site, but in many cases they are past owners or operators who are responsible for the hazardous materials present there.
This means many businesses have to account for liabilities that may have occurred decades ago, including those that may have been incurred by previous companies that have been merged or acquired into the current one.
While tracking down PRPs can be litigious and complicated, over the course of the Superfund program about 70% of costs have been covered by PRPs. The rest used to be covered from specific taxes on petroleum and chemical products, but those taxes lapsed in 1995, meaning remaining costs are now borne by taxpayers.
Nonetheless, the money so far has cleaned and thus delisted 400 Superfund sites, with roughly 1300 more to go in various stages of the process.
How Are Communities Involved?
Once a polluted site is identified, the Superfund process involves many steps. The first is Preliminary Assessment or Site Inspection. If it’s an emergency situation, a Removal Action is taken. But in most cases, a Remedial Action is planned for, which takes many years.
Community involvement is key in these early stages, and the EPA’s Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) works with citizens and businesses in the affected area.
TASC explains technical findings and answers community questions, promoting the community’s active role in protecting healthy communities and advancing environmental protection. It also offers training and environmental employment opportunities through the Superfund Job Training Initiative, helping community members find paid work to clean the sites.
In practice, many existing community-based organizations and local government agencies are closely involved in Superfund cleanups. This can take the form of directly working with the EPA or by using the cleanup efforts as a platform to revitalize and sometime redevelop the area around the site. That’s currently happening at New York City’s two Superfund sites, at the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek.
Superfund Sites & New York
New York State currently has 85 Superfund sites, and neighboring New Jersey has the most of any state with 114. But it wasn’t the New York City metropolitan area with its long industrial history that drove the Federal Government to create the Superfund program.
It happened in upstate New York at Niagara Falls. As the area grew in the twentieth century, a suburban community developed there called Love Canal. Despite the charming name, there were deadly secrets in the ground.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, the area had been used as a municipal dumping ground and then as a disposal site for a chemical company. In the 1950s the land was sold to the local school district, which constructed a new facility for the growing neighborhood around it.
Whatever original containment measures that had been put in place degraded or were actively breached later on as subsequent development took place.
New housing, new sewers, and an expressway were built on lands surrounding the waste site. But during and after rain events residents began to notice oil and chemical puddles oozing out from the site and into basements and buildings.
A growing variety of health problems began affecting the local population, leading to community activism and a media firestorm in the 1970’s. President Carter ultimately sent federal emergency funding, the first time such funding was used not for a natural disaster.
In the end, more than 800 families were relocated, and the whole episode was one of the leading drivers for creating the Superfund program. (Here’s a detailed timeline of the whole saga.)
New York City Today
Hundreds of miles away and decades later, New York City is dealing with its own two Superfund sites, both the results of heavy industry in the city stretching back to the 1800s.
The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and Newtown Creek on the Brooklyn–Queens border are both polluted waterways that have hosted many industrial facilities over the years.
Today, as the EPA and PRPs are remediating these sites, local agencies like New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection and New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation are also involved.
In addition, multiple community-based organizations have also emerged to help repair and revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods. The Newtown Creek Alliance and Gowanus Canal Conservancy are the two leading non-profit organizations working in these areas. The latter is actually currently using Temboo’s Kosmos system to track how well green infrastructure is diverting stormwater to reduce overflows and to engage the community in these efforts.
In Your Community
Regardless of whether you’re among the many Americans who live near a Superfund site, every community could benefit from knowing more about how the local environment is affecting their neighborhood. And everyone can benefit from an engaged community that is able to improve and advocate for itself.