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For the last 35 years, the U.S. government has addressed hazardous waste sites with what's known as the Superfund program. The idea is to clean up chemical waste at sites like Love Canal in Upstate New York — the site that made headlines in the late 70s when residents began noticing an increase in cancers, miscarriages, birth defects and unexplained illness.
Today, the Superfund program includes more than 1,300 toxic waste sites scattered throughout the country. But according reporters Matt Drange and Susanne Rust, the process can sometimes be inefficient or ineffective, and in other cases leads to pollutants as dangerous as those the government is trying to remove.
Their report "Toxic Trail," a joint collaboration between the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian, reveals that the movement of waste to treatment sites — sometimes thousands of miles away — creates a whole new set of environmental problems, many of which go unchecked.
Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson checks in with Drange and then turns to California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, whose district includes 11 Superfund sites.
She recently wrote to EPA officials asking for information about how waste is monitored once it leaves Superfund facilities and whether there are alternatives to some of the methods currently used at certain clean-up sites.
The EPA sent Here & Now a detailed response to this story and the report by The Guardian and Center for Investigative reporting. Read it here.
Matt Drange on what's going wrong with the cleanup of Superfund sites
"A lot of things. We looked at a collection of Superfund sites here in Silicon Valley, which are complex groundwater sites, and they're really difficult to clean and nobody really has a great solution for how to clean them. And right now the current solution is to pump the pollution from the ground water to the surface — and you can think of it as sort of a large Britta filter. And once those filters are full with contaminants, in this case heavy industrial solvents used in the old chip manufacturing days — you know, Intel and Fairchild and all those companies — once that filter's full, they then send it off for treatment, and that's really where all the problems start."
Drange on how that causes a 'toxic trail'
"Just by doing that process ... putting the filter in the back of a big rig truck, driving it 2,600 miles across the country, burning it, you're creating not only a ton — tons in fact — of greenhouse gases, but by burning you also release dioxins, which are part of the EPA's 'dirty dozen' chemicals, and they're very harmful. They build up in the food supply and eventually humans are exposed to them when they eat their food."
Congresswoman Ana Eshoo on what she has asked the EPA to do
"The report raised, I think, some very important questions. And I asked three questions really based on the findings of the report, of the EPA, and that is to what extent the EPA is monitoring the emissions from the transport and the treatment of toxic waste, has the EPA investigated alternatives to current treatment methods and does the EPA have, very importantly, sufficient regulatory authority to monitor and control the toxic pollutants generated after removal. And so I'm looking forward to their response."
- Matt Drange, covers Silicon Valley for The Center for Investigative Reporting. He tweets @mattdrange.
- Anna Eshoo, Democrat who represents California's 18th Congressional District, the heart of Silicon Valley. She's a ranking Member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee. She tweets @RepAnnaEshoo.
This segment aired on April 4, 2014.