Superfund Me

by Jen Dunn


The Animas River in Colorado before and after an EPA contractor accidentally breached a dam that led to a toxic spill. Image Credit: Lawrence University


In the second half of the twentieth century, the ramifications of our rampant, and often unregulated, industrialization dramatically materialized across the American landscape.  The citizens of Donora, PA, suffered from dense industrial smoke that sickened almost half the community and resulted in 20 deaths.  The heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire and Lake Erie was declared “dead” due to toxic levels of pollution and excessive algae.  While the health and environmental effects of air and water pollution were dramatic, they paled in comparison to the scope of toxicity caused by the chemical industry.  The residents of a planned community in Niagara Falls, who had long been suspicious of the substances flowing through nearby Love Canal, discovered a 16-acre chemical landfill under their pastoral suburban homes.  Subsequent investigative efforts revealed massive health concerns including above average rates of leukemia, birth defects and miscarriages, and chromosomal damage for many residents.  In , Missouri, the waste oil sprayed on dirt roads came from a facility that produced Agent Orange and had extremely high dioxin levels, a compound connected to cancer, skin diseases, immune disorders, and birth defects.  As the horses in the resort town of Times Beach died off, the residents panicked and the community, like Love Canal, was eventually relocated and the site quarantined.  Former mining communities also bear the consequences of industrial negligence.  The Tar Creek mining region in Oklahoma produced millions of tons of toxic waste as well as children with dangerously high blood lead concentrations, causing the area to be considered one of the most toxic places in the United States.  These legacies of mining and industry encouraged an understanding that health and environmental quality needed to be protected and remediated from the damages of pollution and led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In the current political climate, the EPA’s future is uncertain.  By proposing the dismantling of many environmental regulations and protections, attacks from the White House and Congress appear poised to undermine decades of environmental progress.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has borne the brunt of these assaults, culminating in House Bill 861, introduced in early February, whose one line summary was clear and direct:  “This bill terminates the Environmental Protection Agency on December 31, 2018.” While the ability of the House to pass this bill is unlikely, President Trump has called for gutting the EPA and currently supports cutting its budget by $2 billion (about thirty percent of the current budget) and eliminating as many as 3,000 agency jobs.

One EPA program that would be substantially reduced under this proposed budget is Superfund, the 37-year-old program that addresses sites of hazardous waste across the nation.  Superfund was created in 1980–prompted, at least in part, by the Love Canal disaster–to hold polluters responsible for severe environmental damage caused by industrial, toxic, and chemical waste.  

As demonstrated in the limited examples above, the scope of environmental degradation in America is vast and encompassing:  over 1,700 locations have been put on the National Priorities List (NPL) for investigation and clean up. Superfund sites are found in dense urban areas and remote rural settings.  In September 2015, the EPA examined 1,388 Superfund sites and concluded that 53 million people, approximately 17% of the U.S. population, live within three miles of a Superfund site.  Although there is no one unifying demographic of those living near these sites, the EPA found that almost half were minorities (46%) and concluded that many Superfund sites are located in communities that are “minority, low income, linguistically isolated, and have less than a high school education than the U.S. population as a whole.” The EPA cautions the assumption that living near a site represents a higher level of health risk, but Superfund sites, particularly abandoned industrial sites, landfills, and military depots, have been linked to higher cancer risks. The cleanup process is neither swift nor cheap – on average, it takes about 19 years for a site to be removed from the NPL list, which is why only about 400 have been removed since the program’s creation.  Superfund has been criticized as inefficient, but few other options for remediation exist since the size and scope of environmental degradation and pollution can constrain the responses of local- and state-funded cleanup efforts.  

The Animas River spill of August 2015 is a case in point.  For twenty years, the politically conservative residents of Silverton, Colorado opposed Superfund designation to cleanup polluted sites caused by a century of mining in southwestern Colorado.   They feared that federal regulation would prevent mining from returning to their community, that it would affect their fragile tourism-based economy, and that their property values would plummet.  To prevent placement on the NPL, an alliance between Silverton citizens, mining company representatives, local governmental entities, state agencies, and perhaps surprisingly, environmental organizations, formed in 1994.  The Animas River Stakeholders Group (ARSG) focuses on testing abandoned mine sites and sponsored cleanup for twenty of the worst offenders.  While some of their projects have been successful in remediating waste and improving water quality, other abandoned mines and their waste threaten thousands of river miles in the West.  The EPA estimates that over half a million abandoned mines dot the western landscape on private, state, and federal lands.  While the EPA was heavily criticized for accidently releasing toxic mine water into the Animas River, it was the extensive and intensive mining taking place in that area for over 100 years that lead to an accumulation of toxic waste exceeding the economic capabilities of any stakeholders group.  The river spill revealed the scope of the environmental damage and a growing realization for Silverton residents that the ASRG would never have enough funds to tackle water quality issues.  Although millions of dollars (private, state, and federal) have been spent in the area to remediate mine drainage over the past 25 years, the extent of mining waste found in the nearby San Juan Mountains led many in the area to reconsider a relationship with the EPA: in early 2016, the Silverton community requested 46 surrounding mines and mine production sites to be formally considered for Superfund designation.  

Abandoned mines and their waste are one type of toxic landscapes found on the NPL.  Other hazardous wastelands have been identified by Superfund as a risk to public health and the environment.  Reducing the Superfund budget by 30% will slow or delay cleanup of these sites. Millions of Americans live, work, or recreate on or near Superfund sites, and ignoring the consequences of our industrial decisions means that they continue to contaminate our bodies and our environments and prevent recreational, industrial, and residential renewal.  

The environmental disasters mentioned above did not happen that long ago.  Many Americans remember what life was like before the EPA and a majority of Americans do not want to see the EPA dismantled.  Not only Democrats are voicing concern about proposed cuts to the EPA budget (including Superfund); a number of Republicans aren’t happy with the situation either.  Although the administration proposes to cut the Superfund budget, it appears that bipartisan agreement exists on the importance of federal funds to address the consequences of our industrial heritage.  

Jen Dunn is a history PhD candidate at Montana State University researching Superfund sites and environmental history.


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