People living near up to 302 highly-contaminated sites controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have faced health hazards from pollution for years or sometimes decades, a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation has found.
Those sites are part of the EPA’s Superfund program, which is intended to clean the most dangerous and polluted places in America. But the agency has either been unable or unwilling to decontaminate many of the locations, allowing pollution to fester, a DCNF analysis of more than 1,300 active Superfund sites found.
Health hazards still either threaten humans or are unknown at 117 – or nearly one-quarter – of the 480 Superfund sites added before 1987, TheDCNF’s analysis found. Those locations have waited for more than 30 years for decontamination or an adequate analysis to determine risks.
“You’re not going to find a Superfund site where there weren’t feet dragging in the process,” Karen Gogins told TheDCNF. Gogins is a policy staffer with Citizens for a Health Bay, an advocacy group for the Commencement Bay Superfund site in Washington state, which was added when the program began in 1983.
“We’re starting to get to the cusp of things where decisions will be made,” she said. “We’re still looking at decades more work.”
Gogins added that the slow cleanup has frustrated the community.
“The really hard part is that, when you’re looking at a 30-year period, mobilizing a community that has perceived that little progress has been made is difficult,” she told TheDCNF.
Residents near Commencement Bay aren’t alone.
“No question there’s been frustration over it,” Ross Stander said regarding the American Cyanamid Superfund site in New Jersey, another site added in 1983. Stander is executive chairman for CRISIS, an advocacy group for the location.
The EPA uses several metrics to denote the risks present at a Superfund site. A site presents health risks if the “human exposure status” is “not under control,” and the agency indicates that there is “insufficient data” or recently that the status is “unavailable” when it doesn’t know what threats exist, according to the EPA.
Agency officials indicated that 191 Superfund sites have unknown dangers, nearly half of which have been under EPA authority for at least a decade, TheDCNF’s analysis found. More than 30 of those have been Superfund sites for 30 years or more.
American Cyanamid is one such site, even though its pollution is contained, according to Stander.
“I don’t quite understand why they’re not saying it’s under control,” he told TheDCNF. “The EPA could be a little more positive than saying ‘insufficient data,’ but maybe they don’t want to write a whole paragraph explanation.”
Another 111 sites have known dangers, and nearly three-quarters of those have been part of the Superfund program for at least 10 years, TheDCNF found. Two dozen dangerous sites have been under EPA authority for at least 30 years.
Humans near Commencement Bay risk exposure to pollution, according to the EPA, but it’s unclear when that will change.
“It’s been taking a long time and it’s going to continue taking a long time,” Gogins said.
The EPA created the “construction complete” metric as an additional progress measurement, but the agency’s success in that realm is limited. A “construction complete” metric indicates that no more infrastructure is needed to clean pollution, if any pollution exists.
Just 535 Superfund sites fall into that category, more than two-thirds of which have been under EPA authority for at least a decade, TheDCNF found. Just over 90 have been Superfund sites for 30 years or more.
The EPA is consequently years or even decades away from eliminating those sites’ pollution.
Also, construction has spiraled downward. The EPA added 182 sites in the last decade, but only 10 are “construction complete.”
Some sections of American Cyanamid and Commencement Bay have been cleaned, but treatment plants for the worst pollution haven’t even been built yet. The former is still years away, given that treatment plans haven’t even been approved yet, which can be an especially lengthy process, according to Stander.
More than 1,700 sites have been added to the Superfund program, and less than 400 have been fully decontaminated and removed as of 2013. Cleaning each of those took 13 years on average, a previous DCNF investigation found.
Yet new sites with unknown danger are added annually, despite the EPA’s failure to assess and resolve health hazards at dozens of sites already listed. More than 50 sites were added in the last three years, and health risks are unknown at nearly all of them.
The EPA, for example, recently established a Superfund site that includes Gold King Mine, where the agency spilled 3 million gallons of pollution into drinking water. The agency pushed for a Superfund designation decades before the disaster, asserting it was necessary to protect fish rather than humans.
But the site’s webpage indicates the risk of human exposure to pollution is “unavailable.”
The EPA ignored multiple requests for comment before agency spokesman Frank Benenati ultimately said he could not promptly respond.
Agency officials have previously said complex Superfund sites like Commencement Bay can present decontamination challenges, but that doesn’t explain why it sometimes takes decades just to build a treatment plant.
The EPA has also previously argued that budget constraints pose another hurdle. American Cyanamid alone has cost between $200 million and $300 million to date, according to Stander.
The Superfund program’s funding has fallen over time, but it’s hovered around $1 billion in recent years, which is about one-eighth of the EPA’s total annual budget. That doesn’t count significant gains through interest, seizures from polluters, or the billions the agency has stashed into secretive so-called special accounts.
Meanwhile, the EPA had a significantly larger budget during its first decade or so, but the agency still failed to decontaminate or even build treatment plants at sites added early on.
TheDCNF primarily relied on data collected Nov. 16 from an EPA website that was updated Nov. 29. It appears that one Superfund site was added, assuming no others were removed. TheDCNF is unaware of other changes.