Categories
Backyard Talk Homepage

Pros and Cons of the EPA’s Proposed Rule Against PFAS

Photo credit: Ken Wright/USAF

By Jose Aguayo.

On August 26, 2020, the USEPA released a proposed rule to regulate Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic Acid (PFOS) as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), or “Superfund.” These two chemicals are the most widely used ones from a family of chemicals called Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, or PFAS. They have been used indiscriminately for decades in the aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, clothing, and cooking ware industries. Given their wide usage and their chemistry, which makes them virtually indestructible by natural processes, PFAS widely spread and accumulate in the environment. Additionally, PFAS are strongly linked to health problems in humans, such as cancer and decreased immune response.

The proposal from the EPA looks to tackle the PFAS problem by, ideally, increasing transparency around the release of these harmful chemicals and by helping to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up their contamination. Although this sounds like an amazing move on paper, there are caveats that need to be monitored and potential pitfalls that need to be avoided at all costs.

Let’s start with the positives first – and there are quite a few. Firstly, PFOA and PFOS emissions over a certain threshold will trigger reporting requirements from the industries using these chemicals. The EPA will then be able to investigate and potentially require cleanup at sites contained by releases. Crucially, the EPA will be able to require the industries that released the PFOA and PFOS to pay for the cleanup. Many sites contaminated by PFOA and POFS are military installations that would hold the DOD responsible for the cleanup. Additionally, trash that contains a certain level of PFAS may be required to be disposed of in hazardous waste landfills. Currently, any number of consumer products, construction material, or other waste can freely go to municipal landfills where minimal controls mean these chemicals have a chance of leaching out into the surrounding communities.

Now, the bad news. Labeling these PFAS as hazardous chemicals means that thousands of sites suddenly become eligible to be added to the National Priorities List (NPL), or Superfund list. This list currently has 1,329 sites. With the addition of PFAS sites, this number would easily double if not triple. The current wait time for Superfund cleanup depends on many factors, but the size of the list is one of the main ones. As such, sites currently wait anywhere from a couple of years to more than a decade before cleanup commences. If the list is doubled or tripled, the cleanup times would easily follow suit. A community that has been waiting for cleanup for nearly a decade today, may get pushed further back and wait another decade before the contamination around them is removed.

The argument against this point is that most sites with PFOA and PFOS contamination are DOD installations, thus money would flow from this department. However, that is not guaranteed, and it will require constant pushing from the affected communities to ensure that the money comes in a timely manner. Since PFOA and PFOS have been phased out from many industries, finding responsible parties to pay for cleanup in non-DOD sites will most likely result in lengthy litigation battles that will only delay cleanup of contaminated sites even more.

Another potential pitfall is the disposal of PFAS containing materials. Although the proposed rule would make many PFAS waste go into hazardous waste landfills, a significant number will escape this requirement. The oil and gas industry is exempt from CERCLA, which means their byproducts are not required to follow CERCLA disposal guidelines. Waste from oil and gas drilling, especially fracking waste, contains large amounts of various PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS. This waste would escape regulation and be free to contaminate communities around non-hazardous waste landfills.

All in all, this move from the EPA is a very welcome step to combat PFAS pollution. However, there are several ways in which industries can avoid these implications, and even some ways that the designation can hurt existing communities. CHEJ is weary of these potential pitfalls and encourages the USEPA, as well as the environmental community, to ensure that they do not materialize as detriments to environmental justice communities.

Categories
Backyard Talk Homepage

Chemical Recycling – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Photo credit: GAIA

By Stephen Lester.

Several years ago, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) released a report warning about a growing trend promoted by the chemical plastics industry called “chemical recycling” (also referred to as “advanced recycling,” “waste-to-fuel,” “waste-to-plastic,” “plastic transformation,” and “plastics renewal”). According to GAIA, eight states had passed laws at that time that relaxed pollution regulations and/or provided subsidies for facilities that promoted these processes. Some even explicitly defining them as recycling facilities, despite numerous reports from media, watchdog, and nonprofit groups concluding that they are doing little more than burning plastic.

In a legislative update released this month, GAIA now lists 20 states that “have passed laws redefining these processes as non-waste, including several that inaccurately “define chemical ‘recycling’ as recycling” (emphasis in the original). According to this excellent new report, many of these laws reclassify waste or incinerator processes (including pyrolysis and gasification) and/or feedstocks in a way that would subject them to less stringent air and water quality requirements. Some of these bills redefine solid waste processing as manufacturing, or plastic waste as a post-use polymer or recovered feedstock.

This is a disturbing trend that GAIA warns is being accelerated by the petrochemical industry, who is chiefly behind it. The report argues that this “aggressive legislative strategy” has focused on passing laws at the state level that feature two approaches. First, some laws provide financial incentives to build facilities while making them exempt from some state laws. The second approach pushes for the inclusion of chemical “recycling” in the definition of acceptable recycling in Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bills. These aim to reduce packaging by requiring producers, rather than municipalities, to pay for the recycling of plastic packaging. At the federal level, GAIA notes that the industry has targeted regulators instead of legislators. As an example, GAIA points out that the USEPA included chemical “recycling” in its 2021 National Recycling Strategy.

GAIA names the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the industry lobby arm, as the chief perpetrator of this campaign and describes a report released by ACC this year announcing “$8.7 billion in investments in 83 projects in advanced recycling and recovery, as well as mechanical recycling, aimed at revolutionizing the use and reuse of plastic resources.”

Several advocacy groups are circulating a sign-on letter to Congress to oppose industry sponsored plastic burning legislation. That letter begins: “The American Chemistry Council is working to have federal legislation introduced that would strip regulations from pyrolysis and gasification incinerators and pave the way for a national network of plastic burning facilities that the industry continues to greenwash as so-called ‘advanced recycling.’” Sign on to this letter urging members of Congress to reject any such industry bill and uphold longstanding environmental law designed to protect public health from industrial polluters. The deadline for signing is September 9th.

Categories
Backyard Talk Homepage

International Environmental Governance

Photo credit: Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Images

By Arien Hernandez.

Climate injustice, alongside a lack of state responsibility and commitment, is arguably one of the world’s most formidable challenges regarding climate change. Measured by the extent of damage that would occur if no climate action was taken, developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change, and yet have fewer resources to combat it (Chap. 3, Morin et al.).

Regardless of their emissions, developing countries deal with a disproportionate impact of pollution and environmental degradation due to their reliance on natural resources. Climate change is one of the greatest risks to lower wealth communities, as it is a “force capable of literally ‘undoing’ decades of development”. Meanwhile, some developed states, such as the U.S., have favored minimal agreements in environmental treaties or policies, which are sometimes incomplete or ambiguous (Chapter 7, Morin et al.). Although states have shown initiation in climate action through international treaties such as the Paris Agreement, the ambition gap is a clear indicator that states need stricter emissions targets. If every country shared a systematic and structural view on the environment, these issues would be easier to solve (Chap 6, Morin et al.).

Developed countries can help remedy this issue by taking responsibility for their historic and current emissions while supporting developing nations by transferring funds, expertise, and technologies. Thus, alleviating some of the climate inequity. To fully commit to stricter emissions targets, developed states could enforce emissions trading, ratify more environmental treaties with binding emission targets, or divest from fossil fuels and encourage sustainable energy.

The increasing involvement of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and their significant contributions in addressing collective action problems in global environmental politics, has restored a majority of my hope for the future. A perfect example is noting California’s initiation in air pollution legislation and greenhouse gas emission policies, whereas the U.S. federal government fails to uphold similar goals. It is promising to know that amid inaction and irresponsibility across state actors, many groups and organizations are committed to combating climate change. However, more environmental cooperation and action is needed if we are to restore the Earth’s climate to sustainable and healthier levels.

Categories
Backyard Talk Homepage

The Battle of the Poxes: What You Need to Know About Monkeypox

Photo credit: World Health Organization.

By Tijani Musa.

Monkeypox is a viral zoonosis (a virus transmitted from animals to humans). According to the WHO, the symptoms of monkeypox are similar to those seen in the past in smallpox patients, although the monkeypox symptoms are clinically less severe. Another significant differentiation is that smallpox was known to have been eradicated in the 1980s. Due to the subsequent cessation of the smallpox vaccination following the eradication, monkeypox is making an entrance and attracting the attention of public health practitioners, everywhere. Historically, the environmental conditions in which cases of monkeypox are detected are near tropical rainforests. These environmental conditions are mainly in central and west Africa. Nonetheless, if Covid-19 pandemic has taught humanity any lessons, it would be that we live in a connected world and humans are interdependent on each other. Subsequently, a disease in the tropical rainforests of west Africa could easily travel on the next flight to  infect the next person anywhere in the world. Hence, to minimize the potential spread of monkeypox is to understand the people, place, or things susceptible to carrying and spreading the virus.

Typical host of monkeypox virus

Various animal species are susceptible to the monkeypox virus. The WHO included rope squirrels, tree squirrels, Gambian pouched rats, dormice, non-human primates, and other species as likely hosts of monkeypox. There is still mystery lingering on the history of the monkeypox virus, and further studies are being conducted to learn more about its exact reservoir (s) and its circulation.

How does it spread

Monkeypox spreads in many different ways starting from person to person through:

  • Direct contact with the infectious rash, scabs, or body fluids
  • Respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact, or intimate physical contacts, such as kissing, cuddling, or sex
  • Touching items (such as clothing or linens) that previously touched the infectious rash or body fluids
  • Pregnant people can spread the virus to their fetus through the placenta
  • At this time, it is not known if monkeypox can spread through semen or vagina fluids

According to the CDC, it is possible for people to get monkeypox from infected animals, either by being scratched or bitten by the animal or by preparing or eating meat, or by using products from an infected animal. Monkeypox can spread from the time symptoms start until the rash has fully healed and a fresh layer of skin has formed. The window of illness typically lasts from 2-4 weeks. In the United States, the CDC latest data shows at least 2,108 probable or confirmed cases as of July 19, 2022. The U.S is working diligently to get in front of this virus as it has tripled its monkeypox vaccine doses since last week. More work is needed to increase the supply of vaccines.

Dr. Anthony Fauci warns that “this is something we definitely need to take seriously. We don’t know the scope and the potential of it yet, but we have to act like it will have the capability of spreading much more widely than it’s spreading right now.”

Categories
Backyard Talk Homepage

The Urban Heat Island Effect

Photo credit: Washington City Paper.

By Leanna Theam.

I grew up in the suburbs of sunny Southern California then moved to the opposite end of California to a small college town to study Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning at the University of California, Davis. Regardless, living my entire life in California meant that have I never understood or experienced the severity of climate change. This summer, I moved to Washington, D.C. for a 10-week program to be an intern for the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. To put it simply, I was not ready to experience summers in the city.

I never expected the heat to rise to such high temperatures on the East Coast of all places and it didn’t take me long to realize that I moved into an “urban heat island.” The Urban Heat Island Effect, as explained by the Environmental Protection Agency, “occur[s] when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat.” Washington, D.C. is a good example of this effect as temperatures in the city can rise to 10 or 20 degrees hotter than surrounding cities that may have more greenery.

This not only poses a threat to our environment but a threat to the communities living in these heat islands, specifically those in a lower socioeconomic class. I am fortunate enough to be temporarily housed in an apartment building with AC, and I do not have to worry as much about an energy bill for these summer months. However, long-term residents in the city do not have the same luxury. The Washington Paper explains that “wealthier D.C. residents can leave town for the beach or the mountains this time of year” compared to other lower-wealth individuals who do not have similar means to escape the heat. Federal government’s history of discriminatory actions and urban planning segregation only exacerbate this problem amongst communities of color. Historically redlined neighborhoods must put up with dangerously high levels of heat in the summer months.

Environmental justice is social justice, and we must call for our local, state, and federal governments to focus on these environmental issues. Government officials should pass policies that can help us move towards a healthier living environment to continue mitigating climate change to the best of our ability.

Check out this article to learn more: Exploring the Heat Island Effect in Washington, D.C.

Categories
Backyard Talk Homepage

Attending the 3rd National PFAS Conference at Wilmington, NC

Photo credit: NC State University.

By Jose Aguayo.

CHEJ attended the 3rd National PFAS Conference in Wilmington, NC this past week. The conference was hosted by the North Carolina State University Center for Environmental and Health Effects of PFAS in conjunction with the Cape Fear Community College and funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In attendance were environmental research and advocacy organizations, state and federal agencies, several universities, and representatives of affected communities and tribes. The city of Wilmington was chosen as the venue due to the serious PFAS contamination in the nearby Cape Fear River.

The conference touched upon every aspect of the nationwide (and global) problem of PFAS toxicity and accumulation in the environment and within our bodies. If you need a refresher on PFAS chemicals and the problems they pose to our health, you can catch up here. Researchers from universities here and abroad talked about the new and emerging discoveries of how PFAS impacts our health. For example, it was established that common PFAS compounds such as PFOA and PFOS have very significant associations with kidney cancer, hormone disruption, and immune system suppression. Researchers also emphasized that although we know how a handful of commonly used PFAS affect our health, we know next to nothing about the thousands of other PFAS compounds that make up the majority of PFAS emissions.

Another important aspect explored at the conference was the need for proper treatment or destruction technologies since conventional forms of disposal do not work. Treatment for contaminated drinking water includes the use of reverse osmosis systems, activated carbon filtration, and the use of filtration membranes. Although these treatments show promise, each has drawbacks that remain to be addressed. Among the destruction technologies, those that seek to break the carbon-fluoride bond of the PFAS compounds, a promising one being evaluated by the USEPA is called “supercritical water oxidation.” It is a complex process, but it boils down to heating contaminated water to very high temperatures under great pressure to reach a plasma state of matter. At this stage, PFAS and other contaminants are breakdown and recombine into inert chemicals upon cooling. Again, although promising, there are still some kinks that need to be worked out.

Finally, the conference convened a panel on PFAS disposal. CHEJ participated in this panel and gave a presentation on how landfills are not proper disposal locations for PFAS compounds. This is because landfills are not closed systems. In fact, even a brand-new landfill will leak about 36,500 gallons of contaminated water every year! Couple that with the fact that certain landfills can develop cracks in their bottom liners in less than 5 years, and you have a gradual accumulation of PFAS within the surrounding environment. Any community surrounding the landfill will then be slowly poisoned by these compounds as they leak into the groundwater, drinking water, and even the surrounding air.

(To learn more about landfills, view our landfills publication here.)

The EPA also made a noteworthy announcement at this conference. On June 15, the first day of the conference, the agency released updated interim drinking water health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, and final health advisories for PFBS and HFPO/GenX. These health advisories are several orders of magnitude smaller than the previous ones in place for PFOA and PFOS, and quite small for the newly promulgated PFBS and HFPO/GenX. For PFOA and PFOS specifically, the values are 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion (ppt) – numbers that are minuscule and barely above the detection limits of analytical chemistry. In English, this means that values of detection will be so close to zero that the mere presence of a chemical could garner recognition for remediation by the agency. This new measure will undoubtedly protect people’s health from these chemicals. Now, although this is a praiseworthy move by the EPA, these health advisories are not maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) – EPA’s enforceable drinking water standards; they are only guidelines. As such, water utilities and other water treatment entities may choose not to follow them, and the EPA can do nothing to force their hand. That is the next step the EPA needs to take: to make these PFAS health advisories into fully fledged MCLs.

All in all, the 3rd National PFAS Conference was a productive forum for researchers, advocators, and impacted communities to have a voice and move the discussion forward. It was a testament to how well we can all tackle a problem to our collective health, but also a stark reminder of how much more work is needed because polluters have been manufacturing these harmful chemicals for nearly 70 years and continue to do so.

Categories
Backyard Talk Homepage

The Environmental Health Movement Loses Ethics Leader: Sheldon Krimsky

Photo credit: Tufts University.

By Stephen Lester.

Dr. Sheldon (“Shelly”) Krimsky, internationally esteemed scholar, and pioneer in environmental ethics, passed away unexpectedly in Cambridge, MA, April 23rd, 2022. He was 80. His probing work investigated the connections between science, ethics, and biotechnology, and the pernicious role chemicals play in the environment. A truly adored professor at Tufts University for 47 years, he held the distinguished position of Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. He also taught ethics at the Tufts University School of Medicine and was a visiting scholar at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, The New School, and New York University. Dr. Krimsky received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from Brooklyn College, CUNY, and Purdue University, respectively, and a master’s and doctorate in philosophy at Boston University.

In his prolific and inspirational academic career, Dr. Krimsky authored 17 books including Understating DNA AncestryGenetic AlchemyBiotechnics and Society, Hormonal Chaos, and Science in the Private Interest. He also co-authored Environmental Hazards and Agricultural Biotechnology and the Environment and published more than 235 articles on the regulation and social and ethical aspects of science and technology, bringing attention to issues such as DNA privacy, GMOs, and other conflicts of interest in science. Dr. Krimsky served on the National Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee of NIH and chaired the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of AAAS and had been a consultant to the Office of Technology Assessment. He was on the Board of Directors of the Council for Responsible Genetics and served on the editorial board of seven noted journals.

Born in Brooklyn, he embraced his New York roots, eventually living part-time in Greenwich Village. He was often seen in Washington Square Park, getting coffee and a bagel at one of his favorite cafés, or at the Green Market where he would often pick up a treat, usually apple pie. He also played guitar and harmonica, sometimes jamming with friends, and writing and improvising songs. Fiercely loyal, kind, and supportive to family and friends, he was thoroughly devoted to teaching and to his students. Survivors include the love of his life, his wife Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky, playwright, visual artist and author, and two adored children Alyssa Krimsky Clossey and Eliot Krimsky, along with their spouses Will Clossey and Lisa Benger, and three cherished grandchildren, Benjamin Perry Clossey, Andrew Krimsky Clossey, and Siona Rose Krimsky. To learn more about his life’s work, please visit the many pages within this website.

Categories
Backyard Talk Homepage

What Do Plastics & “Pre-Polluted Babies” Have in Common?  

Image credit: CC0 Public Domain.

By Sharon Franklin.

While modern science has greatly improved the American way of life, it has also increasingly revealed the human costs of these advances. Of these costs are the large-scale environmental pollution that has the potential to impact the health of people across the world. Kyle Bagenstose a reporter for phys.org, recently published an alarming article emphasizing this impact.

In this article, Bagenstose reports that during last month, a groundbreaking study from the University of California, San Francisco of 171 pregnant women found more than 9 in 10 had measurable amounts of 19 different chemicals and pesticides in their bodies. This also showed evidence suggesting that babies are born “pre-polluted” with chemicals. The full extent of health effects from such exposures is unknown, but scientists are worried that they could contribute to the rising rates of autoimmune diseases, developmental disorders such as autism and reproductive harms, and the mysterious decline of sperm counts in men amongst the U.S. population. Dr. Tracey Woodruff, co-author of this study states, “Our understanding of exposures is not keeping up. What are these chemicals doing?”  Even though the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have decreased the amount of many toxins in the environment over the past 50 years, according to Dr. Woodruff, experts are saying regulators remain far behind in catching up to the threats of the modern era. This is partly due to how little the more than 40,000 chemicals in commerce have been robustly studied for their potential human health effects.

Is there anything we can do about this? According to Stephanie Wein of PennEnvironment, states’ efforts to cut down on pollution have often focused on the “end fate” of materials, such as recycling plastics or repurposing materials. This, she says, means that solutions usually misplace responsibility. Says Wein, “The onus should not be on local governments or consumers to deal with the waste. The onus should instead be on the companies that create it.” 

Roland Geyer, an ecology researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, adds, “There will always be plastic[…] it’s such a cheap and incredibly useful material[.] But we need to agree that this is too much, and we need to bring it down.” Other experts agree that solutions need to come from federal agencies like the EPA, with support from Congress through more funding and newer authorities. 

For a community like Port Arthur, Texas, a city rife with cancer, where little is being done to understand and address hazards, such changes are essential. John Beard, of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, notes that in his community, the French-owned Total Energies’ oil refinery is one of 12 facilities that the Environmental Integrity Project calculated as emitting benzene at levels above EPA limits. He thinks, “We need more monitoring along the fenceline communities, and also beyond the fenceline, because the effects are carried downwind. We have to regulate how these refineries go about their business.”

Categories
Backyard Talk Homepage

Can Germs and Mushrooms Clean an Oil Spill?

Photo credit: Steve Gschmeissner/SPL; Amazon; Daniel Beltra/The New Yorker

By Hunter Marion.

Remediation is the process of removing pollutants from the soil or water of a contaminated location and return it to a healthy state. This process is the desired goal for most environmental endeavors. However, remediation is usually a difficult, dissatisfactory process whereby state or federal government (or their contractors) bungle, delay, or quit during it. Traditional remediation efforts can have big flaws: pollutants or contaminated soils may be relocated to a nearby landfill; chemical wastes from heavy machinery might mix in with the present toxins; or funding could quickly dry up.

One alternative to traditional remediation that is seeing a resurgence of attention among the scientific community is natural remediation. Natural remediation applies living organisms to the clean-up process. It is usually cheaper, less intensive, can be managed by private citizens instead of government actors, and is, obviously, more natural. Two natural remediation processes that are becoming more popular are bioremediation and mycoremediation.  

Bioremediation is the process of using microbes to “detoxify contaminants in the soil and other environments.” Certain microbes (usually bacteria) can consume pollutants and convert them into harmless chemical compounds like carbon dioxide or water. Even pollutants previously thought to be irremediable like plastic and oil have been found to be vulnerable to bioremediation. For instance, recent research has found that certain bacteria can “degrade between 50% and 60% of [automobile] fuel in a few weeks,” convert mercury to non-harmful chemicals, consume plastics at the bottom of the ocean, and even thrive within oil spills.

How this works: remediators introduce a microbe into the soil or water via in situ (on-site) or ex situ (off-site) methods. This can be by heating and mixing the microbes into the soil via an aboveground “bioreactor”; pumping air into spaces filled with waste to cultivate bacterial growth; or by creating a “biofilter,” a culture of microbes applied to a biomass (wood or peat moss) which feeds on airborne pollutants. Each method must be finely tuned to each specific pollutant, environment, climate, etc., or else the process runs the risk of either not removing or inefficiently negating the pollutants. Thus, bioremediation can require more maintenance and attention than traditional remediation methods. However, bioremediation has been shown to be more promising in the long run than some traditional remediation methods.    

Alternately, mycoremediation is the removal of pollutants via fungi (mushrooms). Some fungi, using their mycelium (fungal root system), can absorb, degrade, and convert environmental toxins into nonharmful chemicals. Specific mushrooms can also absorb the toxins and store them in less dangerous forms inside their fruiting bodies (or caps). For these mushrooms, remediators would need to compost them and reintroduce them into a new generation of growth (doing this repeatedly can remove most toxins).

Mycoremediation has already been effectively applied to wildfire burn zones in California and oil spills in Ecuador. In one study, oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus sp.) were found to be capable of neutralizing or absorbing significant quantities of toxins within their fruiting bodies. Another study found that fungi could remove nearly all toxic products applied to it. However, researchers have yet to find unanimous evidence that heavy metals can be effectively removed by mycoremediation. Despite the lack of extensive research, mycoremediation practices have a solid foundation so far and are quickly becoming a common alternative amongst local organizations. Like the fungi they work with, hundreds of mycoremediation organizations, research teams, and companies are popping up all over the country. All convinced that fungi (and microbes too) are the best, least expensive solution to their environmental issues.

It should be noted that bio- and mycoremediation are not new methods. In fact, the EPA has even tested these methods under the Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation (SITE) Program from 1989 to 2005. The purpose of SITE was to experiment with alternative remediation technologies and techniques upon existing Superfund sites and to document their progress (or lack thereof). Sadly, the SITE program was terminated, and with it ended most federally sponsored testing. Since then, natural remediation has been almost strictly within the purview of citizen science groups and local clean-up organizations. But maybe this resurgence in natural remediation methods could help elevate governmental application once again?

Categories
Backyard Talk Homepage

The Effect of Underfunded Environmental Law

Photo credit: Rice Design Alliance; Brio, Texas.

By Arien Hernandez.

In the 1980s, the Finley family believed they were moving into a great neighborhood located in Brio, Texas, but were shocked to discover they were living in one of the most polluted parts of the country. Cheryl Finley was horrified to learn they lived dangerously close to the Brio Superfund Site. At the same time, the community noticed an unsettling trend that many children were born with harmful birth defects. As more families suffered and more children became sick, it was evident to the community that urgent action from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was desperately needed. As many of you know, the Superfund act allows the EPA to clean up and regulate contaminated toxic sites. The Superfund permits federal authorities to act when a “qualifying” spill, or an identified risk, occurs through short- and long-term cleanup strategies.

Around 73 million Americans, 22% of the United States population, live in similar conditions as Cheryl Finley. As of 2020, 1,857 Superfund sites were identified, with 1,300 having extremely high hazardous ranking, placing them on the National Priorities List (NPL). Some speculate there are even more sites where families are unknowingly living in a toxic environment. Due to an alarming presence of Superfund sites, approximately one out of six Americans reside within a 3-mile radius of a hazardous waste site. Fenceline communities remain at risk of facing adverse health risks, where studies show that people of color and lower wealth are exceedingly prone to residing near Superfund sites. Superfund has been historically underfunded since its inception in 1980, specifically since the tax on chemical and petroleum industries expired in 1995. After Congress failed to reinstate this polluter tax, it has routinely underfunded the EPA’s ability to mitigate the effects of toxic sites.

Currently, after over 40 years since the enactment of Superfund, only 25% of identified sites have been delisted. Environment America created a 2021 report that shows funding appropriations have gradually decreased since 1995, from approximately $2.3 billion to $1.2 billion in 2020. A statistical model determined that Superfund sites could decrease life expectancy through consistent exposure to toxic chemicals and pollutants. Living near processing plants, landfills, mining sites, or manufacturing facilities can reduce life expectancy by 1.2 years. Unfortunately, many families, like the Finleys, were unaware of their proximity to toxic waste sites until their children became unusually sick. On December 17, 2021, the EPA announced its plan to use an allocated $1 billion investment from the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Law. Drawing appropriations from this law will stimulate the previously underfunded and laggard cleanup processes of approximately 49 Superfund sites in 24 different states.