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EPA Response To Here & Now Story About Superfund Sites

This article is more than 5 years old.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent Here & Now the following statement ahead of our story about Superfund sites with Matt Drange of The Center for Investigative Reporting and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo:

The EPA’s Superfund program protects the American public and the nation’s resources by assessing and cleaning up some of the most contaminated sites in the United States. As a result, communities are safer, healthier, and have realized economic benefits. EPA’s actions also protect and restore the nation’s valuable and limited groundwater and surface water resources. To date, the Superfund program has completed all physical construction of the cleanup remedy at 1,156 sites. EPA worked extensively over the last year to respond to questions and provide information to reporters from the Center for Investigative Reporting regarding the remediation of the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman Superfund site in Mountain View, CA, and the processes involved with hazardous waste cleanup and disposal, in general. EPA provided comments on draft findings that the Center for Investigative Reporting provided to EPA prior to the release of the Center’s story, “Cleanup of Silicon Valley Superfund Site takes environmental toll.” In those comments, EPA detailed inaccuracies and misleading information in the Center’s findings. Unfortunately, the Center did not correct their findings and published information that EPA believes is irresponsible and conveys an inaccurate and misleading description of the Superfund program. In addition, the Center’s story does not reveal the data supporting the Center’s calculations of the volume of emissions associated with site remediation.

Below are the comments that EPA provided the Center prior to publication of their story. The bolded text are draft findings provided to EPA by the Center for Investigative Reporting, followed by EPA’s comments.

Comments provided by EPA to the Center for Investigative Reporting on March 5, 2014 regarding draft findings for the Story, "Cleanup of Silicon Valley Superfund Site takes environmental toll"

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on your initial conclusions of your report. While we can’t comment on all of the report’s conclusions because we haven’t seen it in its entirety, here are some general and specific comments relating to the parts of your story that you’ve shared. Overall, the underlying premise of the statements you provided suggest that cleanup activities are the environmental problem as opposed to the clear human health and environmental threats posed by uncontrolled hazardous waste. EPA undertakes cleanup actions in response to contaminants either accidentally or purposefully released into the environment that have caused or have the potential to cause harm. Had the materials been properly handled in the first place, our actions would not be needed. In the absence of cleanup, threats to human health and the environment would go unaddressed with site wastes spreading through soil and groundwater, increasing the amount of contamination and potentially exposing more people to contaminants.

Waste begets waste. At every step along the trail, treatment leaves behind a new batch of waste that needs to be shipped somewhere else. At one stop, a plant in Wisconsin creates more waste than it takes in.

Unlike the releases being addressed by cleanup activities, actions taken to address uncontrolled hazardous waste are regulated. In some instances, these activities destroy waste and in others, waste is captured and contained. Regardless of how the waste is addressed, cleanup actions occur within a regulatory framework which works to ensure that cleanups and any related byproducts are managed safely and with as little environmental impact as possible.

Treatment creates new hazards. The superheating used to release toxic chemicals in Kentucky gives way to an equally alarming danger that isn’t monitored: dioxins. After they escape the plants, dioxins can build up in the food supply and have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

We cannot comment on the Kentucky example because we are not familiar with the details upon which the assertion associated with it is made. We can say, however, that pump and treat systems are a proven tool for containing groundwater contamination, reducing the concentrations of contaminants in groundwater, and providing clean water that is either used for drinking water, or returned to the environment.

The system is highly inefficient. For every 5 pounds of contaminants pulled from the ground, roughly 20,000 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced from continually running pumps, cross-country treks and treatment plants that produce as much greenhouse gas as municipal power plants.

While it does take energy to pump and to treat groundwater, leaving contaminated groundwater unaddressed presents a risk to human health and the environment. In the case of TCE-contaminated groundwater, TCE vapors can migrate into homes and workplaces, potentially posing an immediate health hazard to building occupants.

Cleanup at the Silicon Valley site, and others like it, isn’t working. Over the past decade, the pollution there has remained stagnant despite constant pumping. In some cases, the treatment is actually increasing the pollution in the water.

It is factually incorrect to say that the ongoing MEW cleanup is not working when cleanup actions have reduced TCE plume concentrations by more than 75 percent and maximum TCE concentrations exceeding 100,000 parts per billion have been reduced by more than two orders of magnitude (to less than 1000 parts per billion). This reduction translates into the removal of more than 100,000 pounds of TCE and the treatment of 5 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater. It is important to remember that for over two decades solvents were released to the soil and groundwater in this area from various facilities through leaks in tanks and piping and incidental spills, so it is unrealistic to expect that TCE can be removed overnight.

The costs of treating the waste are enormous. To continue cleanup at sites like this, the EPA estimates taxpayers will spend between $1.2 billion and $3.6 billion over the next 30 years. That doesn’t include the untallied billions more spent by private companies tasked with cleaning up their past messes.

The cost of cleaning up past industrial hazards is high but the cost of not addressing those hazards is higher. For example, a 2011 study by researchers from Columbia University, MIT and University of California at Berkeley found proximity to a Superfund site before cleanup is associated with a 20-25 percent increase in the risk of congenital anomalies. Furthermore, EPA works to ensure the cost of addressing contamination is borne primarily by those responsible for the contamination. In the case of taxpayer-funded cleanups, EPA is continually evaluating new technologies and treatment options to optimize remedial operations.

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