Americans often must wait years or even decades before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) begins cleaning up the nation’s most seriously polluted sites that threaten public health, a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation has found.
These most polluted places – commonly called superfund sites – go on the National Priorities List (NPL) to emphasize the need for urgent attention and to make funds available for cleaning them up. Congress appropriated $1.09 billion to the Superfund in 2015.
Cleanup efforts led by EPA hadn’t begun at nearly two-thirds of the more than 1,300 sites on the NPL as of 2013, according to a DCNF analysis of 13,874 current, potential and former superfund sites.
Of the 818 superfund sites where EPA cleaning hadn’t yet begun, 771 had been waiting for at least five years. In fact, 154 of those sites were among the first added to the NPL in 1983 — when areas were first added to the list. They’re still waiting for cleanup to start 30 years later, though that doesn’t include the years spent waiting before the NPL was established.
Delays in cleaning up seriously polluted sites can harm public health.
Delayed cleanups mean “longer human and environmental exposures to unsafe substances and longer restrictions on public use of needed natural resources,” EPA’s inspector general said in a March 31, 2016, report.
“An estimated 39 million people — about 13 percent of the U.S. population — lived within 3 miles of” nearly 90 percent of superfund sites, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Inconsistencies and uncertainties in the agency’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System database and chronic unresponsiveness from EPA officials make it extremely difficult to determine how many, if any, of the 818 sites have been cleaned by the parties responsible for the pollution.
A plant in Acton, Mass., for example, was one of the first sites added to the NPL in 1983. The EPA’s database doesn’t show that any cleaning work was performed, though the agency’s website boasts that “following immediate actions to protect human health and the environment, the site’s long-term remedy was put in place.” Regardless, the plant is still on the NPL, suggesting that cleanup was never completed.
The official wait times don’t include the years and sometimes decades required to complete cleanup operations once they’ve started, nor the time officials required while deciding whether an area should be designated a superfund site.
For example, the region surrounding Gold King Mine – the Colorado site where the EPA spilled three million gallons of toxic waste into a major river in August 2015 – was recently proposed for addition to the NPL. The EPA had been seeking to make the area a superfund site since the 1990s.
When cleaning begins, superfund sites may remain polluted and dangerous for decades. It took nearly 13 years on average for the 372 decontaminated sites to be taken off the NPL as of 2013. Three sites took 30 years to be cleaned, while another 54 took at least 20 years.
The long periods before cleaning begins is due to each site’s unique features, as well as numerous necessary steps, including a multitude of required studies, locating and securing funds from the responsible polluters, according to the EPA. Cleaning length can be dependent on the complexity and contamination level of a given site.
Only 65 sites saw longterm cleanup begin before being included on the NPL, though 40 of those couldn’t be added sooner since the list hadn’t been compiled yet. Emergency cleanups began at another 343 sites before their addition to the NPL.
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