Reading Time: 11 minutes

Scattered across the country, from New Jersey to California, are 114 toxic waste sites where the federal government has determined that the threat to humans from dangerous and sometimes carcinogenic substances is “not under control.”

More than 25 million people live within 10 miles of these sites, according to a review of U.S. Census data of the 2000 population and more than 100 schools are located within one mile, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of government records show.According to the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees cleanup of the sites, hazardous chemicals and toxins there are poisoning the soil, water or air — or all three.

Yet, the EPA has resisted releasing information about cleanup plans or the sites’ danger to the public other than offering a list of the sites’ locations and a brief description about how people might become exposed — information buried so deep in the EPA’s Web site that it is difficult to find.

The sites are considered “not under control” by the EPA because the materials contaminating them could reach and harm people. Exposure to some of these toxins and hazardous chemicals has been linked to various forms of cancer, respiratory disease and heart disease and has stunted mental development in children.The 114 sites are among 1,623 dangerously toxic areas currently or formerly included or proposed for action by Superfund, a law passed in 1980 to identify and supervise the cleanup of America’s most toxic and polluted areas.

Information that the EPA has been reluctant to release includes:

  • A ranking of which sites are the most dangerous
  • Plans for addressing the health threat at the sites
  • A timetable for cleaning up each site
  • Funding needs for each cleanup
  • Whether the EPA is investigating 181 more sites throughout the country for which the agency says it has “insufficient data” to determine whether they pose uncontrolled risks for humans

Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have aggressively sought more information about the 114 sites, with limited success. And much of the information provided to them by the EPA is not available to the public.

The EPA withholds funding and cleanup scheduling from the public so parties that could be responsible for the sites will not be aware of the agency’s priorities, said Susan Bodine, who heads the Superfund program.

Bodine released some of this information to the senators, “with the understanding that these were sensitive documents,” Bodine told the Center.

“[This] is ridiculous,” said Alex Fidis, a staff attorney specializing in Superfund issues for U.S. PIRG, a public interest group. “The fact that information as paramount as making sure that humans are not being exposed to contamination is being withheld from the [Senate] Environment and Public Works Committee is outrageous.”

Toxic neighbors

New Jersey, which has the most Superfund sites overall, also has the most sites (15) where human exposure to contaminants is not under control. California and New York tie for second with seven each.

The EPA lists a total of more than 260 pollutants at the sites where human exposure is not under control. Some of the most common and most dangerous are arsenic, lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and vinyl chloride, according to data from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal public health agency that provides information on contaminants found at Superfund sites.

There are also 224 Superfund sites where the migration of contaminated groundwater beyond the site is not under control.

EPA’s priorities questioned

People living near some of the most contaminated areas complain that the EPA favors private interests over their own and that their health suffers the consequences of government neglect.

Cass Davis grew up in Smelterville, Idaho, where he said he was exposed to high concentrations of lead as a child in 1973 when a fire at a nearby smelter damaged pollution control filters. Lead fallout spewed over the surrounding area, contributing to the worst childhood lead-poisoning epidemic in U.S. history.

Davis blames his exposure to lead for a “plethora of learning disabilities,” including attention-deficit disorder. “I am ADD to the max,” Davis said.

Located in a region of Idaho called the Silver Valley, the Smelterville area is part of the 150-square-mile Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex, whose long history of soil and water contamination earned it a spot on the list of toxic sites where human exposure is not under control.

A long-established mining district, the area was contaminated by 62 million tons of mine waste, called “tailings,” that were dumped directly into streams near the town from 1884 to 1968. The tailings contained 880,000 tons of lead and at least 720,000 tons of zinc, according to the EPA.

Observers in the scientific community say the lingering threat has been downplayed by health studies led by state and federal agencies, which conclude that the ongoing cleanup, which began in 1986, has caused lead blood levels to decrease. But environmental health scientists disagree, charging that the limited sampling for the presence of lead in children in the area prevents any valid conclusions on the success of the cleanup.

“Studies that have been carried out in the Silver Valley over the last 10 years to assess lead blood levels in young children have not been epidemiologically sound, carefully crafted [and have not used] statistically valid samples to indicate what the prevalence of childhood lead poisoning is or is not in the Bunker Hill area,” Dr. John F. Rosen, head of environmental sciences at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said in an interview with the Center.

In a 2002 assessment of the site, Rosen concluded that “public health has not been adequately addressed or protected by federal and state agencies” at Bunker Hill.

Local environmental activist Barbara Miller said she worries that more children are being exposed to high levels of lead and said she believes that the EPA’s cleanup efforts were designed more to save the mining companies’ money than to protect the surrounding community.

“This site has affected five generations of people,” said Miller, executive director of the Silver Valley People’s Action Coalition. “But EPA is still negotiating with mining companies and avoiding the human health problem as though it doesn’t exist.”

Bunker Hill is not the only “uncontrolled” site where scientists and activists say that the EPA has done a poor job of protecting the community.

At the Picayune (Miss.) Wood Treating Site, 33,000 residents live within 10 miles of the dioxin-contaminated area and seven schools are located within one mile.

Exposure to dioxin has been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer by the EPA and the World Health Organization. Dioxin can also cause a skin disease called chloracne and liver damage, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Wilma Subra, a chemist who heads her own environmental consulting firm dedicated to helping communities get hazardous waste cleaned up, told the Center, “The location of the schools is unacceptable. Exposure to the dioxin emissions from the Superfund site is endangering not only the [surrounding] community, but all of those attending schools in the area.”

At another Superfund site in Pensacola, Fla., the EPA plans to place a giant tarp covered with soil and clay over “Mt. Dioxin,” a nearly 600,000-cubic-yard mound of dirt contaminated with arsenic, dioxin, PCBs and other highly toxic material harmful to human health and whose exposure to humans is “not under control,” according to the EPA.

The Pensacola site was created by another wood-treating facility, operated by Escambia Wood Treating Co. The EPA has determined that migration of groundwater off the site is also not under control.

In deciding among proposed cleanup plans, the EPA acknowledged that the one it settled on, which emphasizes containment, would not be as effective as alternatives that focus on treatment. But the agency maintained that its approach would “result in a substantially equivalent degree of protectiveness” at one-fifth the cost.

Several scientists and activists disagree.

“It’s a high-tech engineered version of burying the stuff in a plastic bag,” said Frances Dunham, a leading member of Citizens Against Toxic Exposure, an environmental watchdog group in Pensacola, Fla.

According to Subra, who helps the surrounding community deal with the EPA, contamination from the site is likely to seep into the area’s groundwater, which already contains high levels of benzene, lead and arsenic, among dozens of other toxins. “There will be very little separation of the waste and the groundwater,” Subra said.

While the EPA’s own documents show that the area’s groundwater is already contaminated with a long list of chemicals in concentrations exceeding state and federal safety standards, residents have been warned about only one item on the list: napthalene. The warning came not from the EPA, but from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the EPA has not warned the community about any of the other contamination, Subra and Dunham said.

“All of this information is not getting out in an adequate manner for the communities living over the plume,” Subra said. “They still use those wells to irrigate their gardens, water their lawns, wash their cars. And the kids play in sprinkler systems.” This type of exposure, Subra said, could cause skin rashes and increase the risk of cancer.

Inadequate work at other sites poses similar risks, she said.

Due to financial constraints, “the Superfund program has been moving more towards containment and not treatment, and in this case it is inadequate containment that is being proposed,” Subra said. “This means that the public is going to be suffering from contamination of groundwater on an ongoing basis, at not just this site, but sites across the country.”

Nailing down the list

One issue of concern to experts is the reliability of the list of the 114 sites considered not under control. At least 47 sites listed by the EPA in June 2006 were no longer on the list by October 2006. Some scientists doubt whether the EPA could have controlled human exposure at that many sites in just four months.

“There is no way that they could have done something to interrupt the pathway [of exposure] of [47] sites in that short a period of time,” said Subra, the environmental consultant.

Richard Clapp, of the Boston University School of Public Health’s Environmental Health Department, agreed. “It is just not physically possible to do that much cleanup in that period of time, so I think there might be some sleight of hand going on … calling things controlled that maybe aren’t controlled,” he said.

During the same period, 26 sites were added. “What happened at these 26 sites?” Subra asked. “Did they suddenly become a threat, or had they been a threat and they just suddenly got to the point where they were evaluating them?”

Superfund head Bodine said the list changed so extensively because the data had been reexamined and updated by the EPA’s regional offices during the summer of 2006. “So some of the changes you are seeing are a result of improved data, and some are a result of [exposure] pathways being cut off,” Bodine said.

Critics scoffed at that explanation. “Once there is a problem uncovered, EPA’s typical response is to just cover it back up,” said U.S. PIRG’s Fidis.

Experts also say there are other sites not designated as Superfund sites but that have dangerous hazardous waste deposits where human exposure may not be controlled.

David Carpenter, an environmental health professor at the University of Albany in New York, told the Center, “The number of sites posing health risks is very much greater than the list that you’ve found,” and includes places that are not even on the EPA’s National Priorities List, which the agency considers the most hazardous.

Carpenter said a good example is in Anniston, Ala.

In 2002, Anniston gained national notoriety when court proceedings revealed that for more than 40 years, Monsanto Co. had dumped PCB-contaminated wastewater into areas where residents could be directly exposed to it. The plant is now owned and operated by its spinoff company, Solutia Inc.

The wastewater left the plant at the edge of town before entering streams, ditches and landfills throughout the small town. While groundwater has not been affected, during heavy rains the ditches and landfills would flood, sending the wastewater into homes and contaminating soil in yards.

When Carpenter testified as an expert witness in a lawsuit against Monsanto brought by residents alleging that their exposure to PCBs caused health problems, he called Anniston one of the most polluted areas in the country.

Michael Stevenson, a senior EPA attorney who became involved with the Anniston site after the agency and Monsanto settled on a cleanup plan in 2003, said the contaminated area, while hazardous, is not on the Superfund list because it doesn’t need money from the Superfund program.

Carpenter said human exposure could be an issue even during the cleanup because residents might still be inhaling PCB-contaminated dust as the waste is transferred from backyards to nearby landfills. Carpenter said he thinks the excavation process is inadequate.

“While I am very much in favor of removing contaminated soil from people’s backyards, stashing it away somewhere near someone’s home is probably going to increase the spread” of PCB pollution, said Carpenter.

Some environmental health experts also say the criteria for choosing the sites are vague.

“I think there are probably a lot more” than 114 sites, said Clapp, of Boston University. The Lipari Landfill site in Pitman, N.J., listed as a Superfund site in 1983, is a prime example of the EPA’s inability to determine whether human exposure is sufficiently controlled, Clapp said. More than a dozen contaminants have been found at the landfill, where 3 million gallons of liquid waste and 12,000 cubic yards of solid waste were dumped between 1958 and 1971.

“The Lipari landfill is supposedly controlled, but there is definitely ongoing exposure there,” he said. “It is a huge landfill with a fence around it, and there are holes in the fence,” allowing children to go through and play in the landfill.

Looking for answers

Sens. Boxer, Obama, Durbin and John Thune, R-S.D., have battled the secrecy that muddles the financial and hazardous condition of the Superfund sites that are not under control. Through briefings, letters and testimony at congressional hearings, they have demanded that the EPA tell them how the agency intends to pay for and conduct the cleanup of the sites — and to inform the public about the dangers.

In July 2005, Durbin and Obama asked for a review of all the “uncontrolled sites,” a list of which ones posed the greatest risk and a timetable for controlling human exposure at each site.

The senators also asked that the EPA further study whether people were being exposed to hazardous materials at 181 additional toxic waste sites where the EPA had “insufficient data” to determine if human exposure was under control.

Nine months later, in April 2006, the EPA responded to the two senators but didn’t rank the most dangerous sites or provide a specific plan to address them. The EPA did provide limited details on the sites themselves, such as whether the agency knew that people were being exposed to the pollution. At times, the answer to that question was “unknown.”

In May 2006, the two senators wrote another letter to the EPA.

“After 10 months, we are disappointed that many of our questions remain unanswered,” they said. “We are genuinely concerned about these sites and what seems to be the EPA’s inattention to the human exposure that may be occurring.”

In response, a month later in June 2006, EPA provided information on five sites in Illinois the senators had asked about where human exposure was not under control. At this time the total number of sites designated this way had expanded to 139.

After more correspondence, the Environment and Public Works Committee’s Subcommittee on Superfund and Waste Management called its first oversight hearing in over four years in June 2006. Boxer, who has since become chairman of the parent committee, complained about the quality, confidentiality and delayed nature of the EPA’s response.

“It is really stunning to see the casual way EPA treats the public’s right to know,” Boxer said. “Many of the documents I have asked for at these sites, especially those relating to timing of cleanup, funding shortfalls and related tasks are stamped ‘PRIVILEGED’ across the whole page in bright red ink.”

She also said the EPA asked that access to the documents she received be limited and reviewed only under supervision.

Lois Gibbs, the housewife-turned-activist who came to be known as the “Mother of Superfund” in 1980, said the obstacles the senators have encountered reflect how difficult it is to get information on Superfund sites from the EPA.

“The fact that even Congress can’t get this information speaks volumes to the degree of secrecy maintained by EPA,” said Gibbs, who now heads the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit organization that helps draw attention to how toxic waste affects communities. “This should be an open public process and it should be open to people who have an interest in the situation.”

According to Mollie Churchill, environmental network coordinator for OMB Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog, “This type of behavior is curtailing people’s ability to actively engage in the process.

“If they don’t know about what is in their backyard, they are not going to be putting pressure onto their representative,” she said. “If that pressure was there, maybe there would be more money for the Superfund.”

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.