Technical Difficulties: The Long Road toward Superfund Site Remediation

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Toxic environmental pollution is unfortunately widespread. If you follow Backyard Talk, by now you have probably heard the story of the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis, Missouri, a dumping ground for nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project toward which an underground fire is slowly creeping. Just last week a contingent from Just Moms St. Louis spoke at a D.C. press conference about the health challenges they and their children have faced while living near this polluted site. The following video shows footage from the press conference and the subsequent march: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpSchIhnYdE.

One commenter on this video asked me whether homeowners could potentially avoid a situation like this through diligent research into the history of where they plan to live. Shouldn’t it be relatively easy to identify whether a site near your home is on the National Priorities List? The story of this site illuminates some common complications that arise during the process of identifying a toxic area and moving toward eventual remediation. It is exceedingly difficult for environmental scientists, let alone community members, to identify pollutants and quantify risks. This post summarizes just a few of the factors that make this process so complex.

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Just Moms St. Louis demonstrate outside EPA Headquarters

Many polluted sites go unrecorded and undetected. When you think of contaminated sites, what comes to mind? We might expect the ground under a former gas station to be loaded with organic contaminants, or predict pollution downstream from a factory. However, not all sites have a clear usage history with easily predictable exposures. This is especially true in the case of places like the West Lake Landfill where waste has been illegally dumped. Radioactive waste was illegally discarded in 1973, but wasn’t uncovered until 1977.

It’s a long road from detection to Superfund designation… The West Lake Landfill was discovered to be contaminated in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the site wound up on the National Priorities List, which designates it as a Superfund Site. How does a site end up on the NPL? There are several different mechanisms that the EPA uses to list sites on the NPL, all of which require extensive characterization of the hazards that are present, and of potential routes for human exposure. At the end of the day, not every polluted site ends up on the Superfund list – leaving still more undocumented but polluted areas. During these interim years, the West Lake Landfill was still polluted – it just wasn’t listed.

…And it’s an even longer road to remediation. Once the West Lake Landfill was placed on the National Priorities List, it was another 18 years until a cleanup plan was ultimately developed. The process of developing a remediation plan involves countless scientific studies, and meetings with PRPs (Potentially Responsible Parties) who are tasked with devising a cleanup strategy that makes sense for the site. During this time, communities are placed in limbo. They live in a documented toxic area, making it difficult to sell their homes, and while cleanup is planned or underway, their potential exposure to toxic compounds continues.

Even then, the unexpected can happen. Much of the current concern surrounding the West Lake site stems from the presence of a smoldering underground fire in an adjacent landfill, which is slowly making its way toward the radioactive waste. It took well over a decade for the EPA to reach a decision on what to do with the West Lake site, and now that this new factor has been introduced, the risks at the site have changed considerably. Any remediation will now have to account for the fire, and underground fires are notoriously difficult to stop.

It is difficult enough for environmental scientists and managers to detect environmental pollution, to determine the urgency of remediation activities, to decide on a plan, and to revise that plan if the unexpected occurs. It is nearly impossible for potential homeowners to keep abreast of the slow-moving yet unpredictable process of listing and remediating a Superfund Site.

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