What is a Superfund?

What does “Superfund” mean?

“Superfund” is the informal term given to the 1980 law passed by Congress known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERLA), which gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the right to enforce clean-ups of hazardous areas and, when possible, charge the responsible polluter. The abandoned location where the hazardous waste has been dumped is itself also referred to as a “Superfund site”.

Want a memory trick? The name may sound whimsical, but think of these sites as the opposite of “super fun.”

What are Superfund sites?

Superfund sites come to exist over time when toxic waste is dumped on land or improperly managed. Sometimes these sites are a result of dumping activity before there were proper disposal regulations in the U.S. Other times, well, those regulations were just ignored. Historically, these have been locations like industrial facilities, processing plants, or mining sites, and around 70% of the time, the EPA finds the responsible polluter. If there is no identifiable party responsible for the site, the Superfund site can also be cleaned through funds allocated by Congress for long-term remediation. The overall goal of the Superfund is to restore these areas back to productive use.

 

Are Superfund sites safe?

Generally speaking, no. There are many contaminants found at these sites known to be harmful to the environment and to human health, including lead, asbestos, chromium, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls, and more. Bleh.

The good news is that after cleanup goals are met, going so far as to remove contaminated earth, the EPA can indicate that a Superfund site is considered safe. However, it’s pretty hard to tell how much of an impact events like flooding may have on whether resulting toxins are transported farther from the original site and brought closer to nearby communities and other marine life. For those of us trying to read between the lines…this is another reminder that, as with many facets of sustainability, our actions can have indirect impacts on way more than what we can directly touch or see.

While some research shows that adverse health effects may be common within a radius of about 1.8 miles from a hazardous waste site, other research suggests that being located within 0.2 miles of an active Superfund site may actually decrease life expectancy by 0.186 – or just under fifteen months depending on socioeconomic factors. Needless to say, clean-up strategies are essential.

How many Superfund sites are there?

The number of Superfund sites is ever-changing. New hazardous sites are added to the priority list and others are being remediated and removed all the time. As of March 2022, there were over 1,300 Superfund sites in the U.S.

 

How are Superfund sites remediated?

Great question! To start, project teams visit these contamination sites in person to assess the extent of the hazards. Technical assessments and samples are taken using field-based methods that, when compared to sending samples to a lab, help speed up the wait time for results and lead to quicker remediation action. Over the course of the clean-up, engineering best practices are used to minimize any further environmental impact, which are then cataloged by the EPA in terms of energy efficiency, air emissions, water, land and ecosystem, and materials and waste. The quantifiable outcomes of these efforts are also profiled within the EPA’s Clean-Up Information database.

Once remediation is complete, the focus turns to reuse and redevelopment. When grounds that were once Superfund sites are deemed “ready for reuse” it means they have met technical determinations that indicate the site can support new activity. Many organizations have partnered with the EPA on redevelopment programs, turning these once toxic sites into anything from pollinator habitats to parks and local businesses. Now that is Super fun!

 

Still want to learn more? Check out some of our favorite references:

Superfund National Priority List Where You Live Map

Technologies for Cleaning Up Contaminated Sites

Profiles of Green Remediation