|Issues USA: Superfund Sites
By Elizabeth Hanfman
A Superfund site is an “uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people.” The Superfund program was established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, which was a response to environmental disasters that occurred in the 1970’s established the program to fund sites designated as Superfund sites. The program leads the clean up these sites and attempts to find the responsible parties to reimburse for the remediation. The EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) oversees the program.
Sites are put on the National Priorities List (NPL) and are not removed until they have gone through the clean up process. The Superfund clean-up process includes a preliminary assessment/site inspection, the NPL site listing process, a remedial investigation/feasibility study, records of decision (where it is explained what clean-up processes will be used), remedial design/action, construction completion, post-construction completion, NPL deletion and finally reuse. When a site is deleted from the NPL, it means it is cleaned up and no longer a threat to human health therefore ready for reuse.
There are currently1304 active Superfund sites on the NPL. A database of all past and present Superfund sites with detailed description of the processes taken to clean up the site can be found on the EPA website. Three examples of Superfund sites are Times Beach, Atlas Tack Corporation and Hidden Lane Landfill. In 1972 and 1973, the city of Times Beach in Missouri contracted a waste oil hauler to spray oil on unpaved roads for dust control. It was later learned that the oil contained dioxin when samples were taken in 1982 and residents were then encouraged to leave the area. Times Beach became a Superfund site in 1983 and was taken off the NPL list in 2001 after remediation was completed. Atlas Tack Corporation was built in 1901 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. They were a manufacturer of tacks, steel nails, rivets, eyelets and bolts until they closed in 1985. From early 1940s to early 1980’s wastewater containing cyanide and heavy metals was discharged into a lagoon eventually contaminating the soil and groundwater. It was listed on the NPL in 1990 and is currently in the “Long Term Response Action” phase which is when additional treatments to clean up the site are done within ten years of the initial remedial action. Hidden Lane Landfill was added to NPL in 2008. The Landfill was a 25 acre, privately owned and operated disposal facility in Sterling, VA adjacent to the floodplain of the Potomac River. It opened in 1971 and during its operating years it accepted a variety of solid wastes. The facility closed in 1984 after they were suspected to be the source of trichloroethylene found in the local drinking water. The first cleanup action has been initiated at this site.
By Elizabeth Hanfman
An advertisement promoting the development of the Love Canal community said “If you get there before I do, Tell ‘em I’m a comin’ too, To see the things so wondrous true, At Love’s new Model City.” The Love Canal community was located in the eastern suburbs of Niagara Falls, New York. It was a blue collar community that, at its peak in 1978, included 800 single family homes and 240 low income apartments with about 400 children attending the local elementary school.
The area was named after William T. Love, an entrepreneur who thought that digging a canal between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers could provide cheap energy for the industry and homes that he envisioned surrounding it. Love did not complete the canal project due to a weak economy and personal financial struggles. The last of the construction on the canal was in 1910 which left a 3,000 foot long, 7 to 16 foot deep and 80 to 100 foot wide ditch.
The canal was sold at public auction and in the 1920’s, it became a municipal and industrial chemical dumpsite. Of the dumping that took place there, Hooker Chemical Company (HCC) was a known major contributor that dumped more than 20,000 tons of waste between 1942 and 1953. According to company records, 80 percent of the chemicals dumped were hexachlorocyclohexanes, benzylchlorides, organic sulfur compounds, chlorobenzenes, sodium sulfide/sulfhydrates, various chlorinated waxes, oils, naphthalenes and anilines, benzoyl chlorides, benzotrichlorides, liquid disulfides or chlorotoluenes. There were at least 200 different known chemicals dumped into the canal. One of the most prevalent chemicals, benzene, is a known human carcinogen. In 1953, after the canal was full, HCC covered the canal with soil and sold it to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for one dollar. The walls had been covered with thick clay and more clay was used to cover it when dumping commenced. In the deed, the known presence of chemical wastes buried on the property was disclosed it was stated that HCC would be absolved of any future liability at the site. In 1955, the city built the 99 street site and the playing fields of the school were located directly over the filled area. After finding out about the chemicals, the architect in charge of building the school questioned the safety of the building. Since he was unable to identify what had been dumped, he mentioned that the presence of the waste filled pit could weaken the foundation. The Board of Education decided to move on with the building of the school. The Love Canal community built up around the school and by the late 1950’s, 100 homes had been built. By 1972, the majority of the houses with backyards closest to the canal had been built.
Over the years, the clay walls were weakened from the building that took place above ground. After a particularly precipitous year in 1978, the chemicals in the canal exploded which led to their leaching into the surrounding areas. It was this year that the Love Canal residents became aware of the existence of a leaking chemical dump site. A front page story in the August 1, 1978 New York Times read “Twenty-five years after the Hooker Chemical Company stopped using the Love Canal here as an industrial dump, 82 different compounds, 11 of them suspected carcinogens, have been percolating upward through the soil, their drum containers rotting and leaching their contents into the backyards and basements of 100 homes and a public school built on the banks of the canal.”
Environmental and Human Health Effects
The first reported problems occurred in the mid 1970s but in the 1950s there were complaints about strong odors which were usually attributed to chemical companies nearby. In the 1970s, noticeable environmental effects included containers of waste coming up through the ground, trees and other plants dying, puddles of chemicals in yards and basements and a noticeable chemical odor. There were even “rocks” that would explode when dropped. Studies done by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found 421 different chemicals in air, water and soil samples taken from the area.
Children playing outside would come home with burns on their hands and faces and other skin irritation was seen among children and dogs who had been playing near the school. In addition, birth defects, miscarriages and high white blood cell counts, which are a potential precursor of leukemia, were common. One study found that 56 percent of children born between 1974 and 1978 suffered from some type of birth defect. Miscarriage rates were as high as 50 percent in the mid 1960's. The rates of health problems seen included high numbers of deformities among newborns, blood disease, cancers, epilepsy, hyperactivity and urinary tract disease. It was common for many health problems (ex. hearing loss, skin irritation) to improve or disappear after moving out of the community.
After the community faced these problems for multiple years, New York Department of Health Commissioner, Robert Whalen, finally declared the Love Canal area to be a threat to human health and fenced off the area surrounding the canal in spring 1978.
The Health Commissioner declared a health emergency at Love Canal approximately five months after the immediate canal area had been fenced off . On August 7, New York Governor, Hugh Carey, told residents the state government would purchase all “Ring 1” houses, those closest to the landfill, and later the purchase of houses in “Ring 2” as well. The same day, President Carter approved emergency financial aid for the area, which was the first time emergency funds were approved for a non-“natural” disaster. The Senate also approved a “sense of Congress” amendment which stated that Federal aid would be forthcoming. That same month, the 99 street recommended.
Cleanup began in October of 1978 which included the installation of a drainage trench around the perimeter of the canal to be used to prevent waste from permeating into the surrounding area. A second Federal emergency was declared at the Love Canal site due to controversy about the extent of the contamination and health effects due to it. In July 1980, Congress authorized funding for the emergency relocation and purchase of another 550 homes.
Love Canal was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List (NPL) in October, 1981 and was the first Superfund site. The EPA’s efforts included the removal and containment of the chemicals. Methods to contain the chemicals included the construction of a barrier drain and leachate collection system and the installation of an impermeable synthetic material over the clay which would ideally prevent rain from entering the canal. A drainage system was designed to treat any water runoff. The 239 houses closest to the canal and the elementary school were demolished.
Love Canal Today
Cleanup of the site took approximately 21 years and the cost was estimated at $400 million. Most of the work did not end until the early 2000's. The EPA issued a report in September, 2003 which stated that the site was adequately controlled and in 2004 it was determined to be clean enough to be taken off the Superfund list. It does, however, remain on the NYS Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site Program. Approximately 260 houses north of the canal site were renovated and sold and 150 acres east of the site were sold for light industrial use to commercial developers.
Love Canal is one of the most notorious environmental disasters to occur in the United States. The lessons learned from improper waste disposal and the late evacuation of residents can help to inform future waste disposal and policy so that no disaster to this extent can happen to a community again.
Lake Landfill is a Superfund site located in Bridgeton,
Missouri. This site originated in 1939 as a limestone quarry operating by the Westlake
Quarry Company, however later used for landfilling in the 1950s. It was not
until in 1973 a construction company contracted by the Cotter Corporation,
B&K Construction Co. dumped 7,900
of leached barium sulfate and 35,000
of soil at the landfill. The leached barium sulfate was a byproduct from
uranium enrichment as part of the Manhattan
Project. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission discovered this site in 1977 and
then formally publishing a report of their findings. By 1990, the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed the landfill on the National
Priorities List, declaring the location to be a Superfund site. The EPA has
agencies that are responsible for this landfill: the US Department
of Energy, the Cotter Corporation, Republic Services subsidiaries Bridgeton
Landfill and Rock Road Industries. These agencies were told to partake in an
investigation and evaluation by following the protocols from the Comprehensive
Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA). In 2006, the
EPA released a study on OU-1, which evaluated the possible remedial options for
OU-1. The study also included a descriptive of the site’s condition at the
period of time. The site clean-up plan was
realized in 2008 by the
EPA, which the actions called for putting multilayered cover over 40 acres of OU-1.
However, more studies were initiated to seek an alternative clean-up methods,
which resulted in another report released in 2011
and 2012. In 2013, the EPA conducted an aerial
study of the radioactive waste remains contained with OU-1, and
concluded that it posed no safety risks to the outlying areas. However, this
does not mean that the site is completely safe. A detailed discussion of the
potential health and environmental risks by its own paragraphs, will be assessed
to determine the lethality of this Superfund site that is concluded to be
“safe” by the EPA.
These are the health risks
associated with the compounds that have been found or are daughter isotopes to
compounds found within the West Lake Landfill:
234, 235, and 238 remains in the body targets the kidneys, which
would lead to kidney damage.
227, 228, 230, 231, 232, and 234 can lead to an increased
chance of lung and panaceas cancer, lung disease, DNA mutation, liver disease
and bone cancer. Though most Thorium leaves the body through exhalation, some
deposits can remain in lungs or bones for many years.
223, 224, 226, and 228 causes fractured teeth, anemia, cataracts,
cancer and death. Inhaled radium gradually enter the bloodstream and travels to
all parts of the body, usually targeting the bones.
219, 220, and 222 which is not exhaled becomes stored in fatty
tissues and organs, which results in lung cancer.
210, 212, 214, 215, 216, and 218 causes bone cancer, damage to
spleen, kidneys, and liver—eventually death.
206, 207, 210, 211, 212, and 214 can result in anemia, weakness
of fingers and wrists, an increase blood pressure, damage to the brain and
kidney, miscarriage, lower sperm production and death. Children retain more
lead levels than adults.
If the state of Missouri and
EPA continues to leave the radioactive waste at the Superfund site, then it
will pose harm to the environment. Primarily the area is susceptible to natural
disaster. In case of earthquake, the landfill will be vulnerable to landslides
and liquefaction, which will increase the chance of groundwater contamination
or radioactive material steeping into the Missouri
River. Smoldering fires that occur
about 300 meters from the OU-1 poses a threat to people in the area through
contaminated smoke and increased leachate production. A test was also conducted
by the Department
of Natural Resources, which shows that harmful compounds in the air
downwind from the landfill suggesting that emission from the fire is already
The Superfund site is also
located within the Missouri River flood plain. As the landfill unlined, there
is not layer that will prevent the radioactive material from affecting the
water table, which results in possible radium leak into groundwater.
The EPA currently holds power of the
West Lake Landfill, however there were arguments that the control of the site
should be given to the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Formerly Utilized
Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). This
program was established in the 1974 to clean up radioactive wastes from the US
Atomic Energy Commission. FUSRAP uses independent
government scientist to conduct studies and evaluation, then a follow-up on
waste management is determined by the USACE. Fiscally responsible parties are
not able to legally challenge the decisions made by the USACE. FUSRAP is
currently occupied with two ongoing projects within St. Louis, St. Louis
Airport Site (SLAPS) and
Hazelwood Interim Storage Site (HISS),
which both location contain the same radioactive compositions as West Lake