Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Superfund

Here is another essay that I wrote for my environmental case studies class on the Superfund and it's implications in the Philadelphia area.

In 2011, Forbes rated the Philadelphia area as the most toxic in the United States because of its concentrations of highly contaminated Superfund sites.[1] However, as Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Anthony Wood said, “Most Philadelphians wouldn’t know the Superfund from the Super Bowl.”[2] Most Superfund sites look as plain as a gated lot with a small sign indicating contamination and risk. Although scarcely known, the Superfund is extremely relevant to the Philadelphia area and residents should become informed in order to ensure the safety of their communities.
In the summer of 1978, toxic chemicals turned up in basements and yards near Love Canal, New York. It was soon discovered that the Hooker Chemical Company had filled an abandoned site with over 21,000 tons of chemical waste. Hooker covered the site with earth and clay and sold it to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for one dollar. Schools and a playground were then built on the site and a residential community developed in the neighborhood.[3]
In 1986, two sites per each congressional district were put on the National Priorities List to start off the program. CERCLIS, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System, a superfund tracking database, was created to follow their progress. However, in some districts there were over 50 sites that did not qualify for the program, despite their toxicity.[4]
On December 2, 1984, there was a leak at the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal, India that killed over 20,000 workers and residents. Union Carbide was an American company under the Dow Corporation that had slipped in equipment maintenance and drastically reduced training time for workers to cut costs. Senior managers never checked to see if the plant was following safety protocol. In addition, residents were not educated on an emergency situation plan.  They accidentally ran in the direction of the wind, increasing their exposure and were also unaware that simply covering their faces with a wet cloth could have helped immensely. Outrage broke out immediately from both Americans and Indians. Americans were not only upset about the needless loss of life but also feared something similar happening closer to ::::Desktop:Screen Shot 2012-04-19 at 9.23.07 AM.pnghome.[5] This sparked subcommittees and action within the United States’ government. The outcome was a bill known as EPCRA, the Emergency Planning and Right to Know Act. EPCRA is Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA), which was created in 1986.[6] EPCRA showed that citizens had the right to know the chemicals being used by companies near them. This led to the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), in which all companies are required to divulge all information about the chemicals they use.[7] The State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) was created on a state level to keep citizens safe and respond to the information provided in the TRI.[8]
Republican and Democratic support for the EPA and the Superfund has gone in waves. Initially, it was Republicans that championed the program and more funding for the EPA, but by the late 1980s, the political polarity had reversed. From 1989-1992, during the first Bush administration, environmentalists tried to expand EPCRA through legislation, without much success. During the proceeding Clinton administration, however, the EPA increased the number of chemicals and industries that had to report to the TRI. Industry officials took every possible measure to get out of this, and the subsequent Bush administration took input from stakeholders, who believed that companies were losing profits due to the regulations, and limited the companies’ burden of reporting.[9] Data was first released in 1989, and was reported on by journalists and reporters. On average, the release led to negative returns on the day’s stock price by an average of $4.1 million.[10] Throughout the second Bush administration, the project faced gradual budget cuts, which reduced enforcement and effectiveness.[11] The subsequent Edgar Amendment required facilities to report releases and transfers of chemicals with acute and chromic effects. This caused a decrease in pollution because the costs of reporting and the public scrutiny that followed were high.[12] In the current political atmosphere, Republicans argue that the budget for the EPA is too large and that the EPA stifles companies from free production and, therefore, harms the economy. Democrats see the EPA as necessary to protect our country for pollution.
The Superfund process has many multistage steps. The first part of the process is identifying a contaminated site. From there, the identifiers determine if it would be a good candidate for Superfund funding. The next step is the extensive application process.  If preliminary assessment reveals that the site is significantly contaminated, it will be listed on National Priorities List (NPL) and ranked according to the Hazard Ranking System (HRS), a key part of the EPA’s system.  Next are remedial investigation and a feasibility study, remedial design, construction, NPL deletion, and finally site reuse. Many experts are part of each of these steps. The Remedial Project Manager oversees the entire project and works with specialists and attorneys to find potentially responsible parties. Hydrogeologists, work on the soil and water contamination issues to make sure that they are contained as much as possible. Civil engineers locate potentially responsible parties for liability litigation. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) works to make sure that public health issues are kept under control. Toxicologists and biologists assess and minimize the harm done to nature. The Community Involvement Coordinator has one of the biggest roles – bridging the communication barrier between the public and the experts. Throughout, detailed records of decisions are kept and can be viewed by the public on the EPA’s website.
There are debates on how the Superfund should be funded; however, most agree that it should be funded with taxes on industry and directly by the companies that caused the damage. Originally in 1980, funding for the Superfund program was $1.6 billion, however, the amendments made in 1985 cut its funds.[13] The Downey Amendment created a $10 billion taxes on polluters, $3.1 billion on petroleum, $2.1 billion on chemicals, $2 billion on hazardous waste disposal, and $1.6 billion in general revenues.
The Superfund’s budget currently comes from a variety of sources including the Recovery Act, responsible parties, and state cost-share contributions. In the fiscal year 2010 report, the Superfund “obligated $443 million in appropriated funds, state cost-share contributions, and potentially responsible parties…” for construction on Superfund sites. Three of the 18 sites that completed the construction phase in 2010 received money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009[14], the act signed by President Obama in an attempt to fix the economic crisis, create jobs, and spur the economy. It is a fund that has a total of $787 billion.[15] Allocation of Superfund resources is determined by a high HRS score and length of time on the NPL. In addition, state prioritization, non-federal sites, and federal fund-lead sites have automatic priority.[16]
Costs / Benefits of Superfund: The overall criticisms of the program are its inefficiency, inaccuracy, and inequity. 
Critics claim that the process is inefficient because delays in cleaning up the sites, administrative deficiencies, and high transaction costs that are ultimately paid for by the EPA and not the responsible parties. In 2010 alone, the program conducted 261 five-year reviews, amended 24 cleanup plans, and issued 59 explanations of significant differences at 53 sites.[17] All of these actions, while important to the documentation of the program, take away from funds allocated to the actual remediation process.  One of the root causes of the inefficiency stems from the intensely bureaucratic government. The term “dump-stumping” has been coined to describe when politicians visit a site solely to criticize the Superfund program and get PR. Initially, when the Superfund program was supported by Republicans, Democrats criticized it. The opposite is now true as democrats are more likely to support the EPA and its funding than republicans.[18]
Refutations of the inefficiency claim state that the program did not really get off the ground until 1987, which can explain deficiencies in the number of total Superfund sites remediated. In general, critics tend to focus on the number of sites cleaned up (or not), however, it is really the decrease in health risk that should be emphasized. This focus on number of sites gives the EPA incentive to fix the easiest sites rather than to take action where the money would have the biggest impact.[19]
The inaccuracy claim comes largely from the fact that the inventories are self-reported by the companies, which have a negative incentive in the direct and indirect financial burdens.. In addition, risk assessments are subjective, and therefore biased. Scientists use bioassays, which often give conservative estimates of environmental risk. They also use epidemiology, an assay that makes it hard to link observed risk with cause.[20]
Nonetheless, there were still clear benefits of the TRI program. It ultimately led to a change in chemical use to those that were less toxic, largely because of stakeholder pressure. It helped reporters, journalists, activists, and environmental lobbyists delve deeper and make more accurate claims. It also lead to the phasing out of CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons), an ozone depleting chemical that was the main cause of the “ozone hole.” The remediation of this hole was one of the greatest environmental successes of the 20th century. Thirty-three out of fifty participants in the program voluntarily reduced their levels of pollution.[21]
Many see the Superfund as a way to make companies “internalize externalities”.[22] As pollution data goes public, companies reduce their more dangerous pollutants, especially in areas of greater voter turnout. However, pound of pollution is an inaccurate way to quantify success because chemicals have a wide range and intensity effects. This is something that the general public is usually uninformed about.[23]
Impacts of the Toxic Release Inventory were also felt. It took time and resources for companies to make the reports, and cost them money to change their chemicals. It took government resources to make the data public (which was difficult because of technology available at the time). Furthermore, the accuracy of the data was still in question since companies were self-reporting. In addition, housing prices in neighborhoods near the plants dropped, effecting homeowners and the housing markets of the microcosm economies.[24]  Effects of the project are felt all around, and the question ultimately becomes – is the Superfund worth it?
Still others claim that the Superfund process is inherently unfair.  The superfund cannot equitably fix the fact that some populations are more exposed to the toxic substances than others. Although most would assume that this refers to poorer parts of the nation, Superfund sites are actually found more often in wealthier towns. This may have to do with the fact that industry was settled and made great financial profit for the town and its workers while simultaneously polluting the area. It could potentially also be contributed to the fact that wealthier areas tend to spend more money looking for contaminated sites and are more proactive in pushing for Superfund status.  In areas of higher median income, on average it takes more time between the proposal and final NPL status. Also, sites are less likely to have removal actions and are associated with larger planned cleanup obligations.[25]  This may also be attributed to greater citizen involvement.
One of the biggest controversies of the program is the liability issue. The EPA states that if negligent and fault is found on the part of the defendant, they are strictly held to the funds of cleaning up the site; however, many worry that it actually tax dollars paying for the doings of these highly profitable companies. One of the unique properties of the Superfund is that companies can be found liable even for actions that took place before the Superfund was created. Each of the polluters can be liable for the cost to clean up the entire site.
The Superfund’s performance measures including the following:
·      Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA)
·      Sitewide Ready for Anticipated Use (SWRAU)
·      Human Exposure Under Control (HEUC)
·      Groundwater Migration Under Control (GMUC)
·      Final Assessment Decision (FAD)
·      Construction Completed (CC)
·      EPA Strategic Plan[26]
The latest Superfund accomplishments report was issued after the fiscal year 2010 and shows a long list of the programs successes. In 2010, the Superfund reduced human exposure to harmful chemicals at 18 sites, exceeding the annual goal, which was set at ten, and mitigated contaminated ground water by 18 as well, surpassing the annual goal of 15. They claim that this brings the total number of significantly remediated Superfund sites to 1,338! It is estimate that 1.3 million acres of land have been remediated to the point of safety to people and that over 455,800 acres are ready for use. The construction phase was finished at 18 sites, bringing the total for that to 1,098, or 67.5% of all NPL sites. By the end of 2010, there were 1,627 final and deleted sites.[27]
On the other side of the spectrum, the Superfund is a continuing and ever-growing process. In 2010, 20 new sites were added to the NPL.  There are also many contaminated sites that are not listed and more that have yet to be discovered.
There are forty Superfund sites listed in the city of Philadelphia, and many more in the greater Philadelphia area. Philadelphia was rated the most toxic urban area by Forbes magazine in 2011[28] and was on the bottom of Sperling’s water rating list with a score of just 13%.[29]  Many of the superfund sites in the Philadelphia area are former landfills that did not have proper containment and liner systems. Some significant sites include the Bridgeport Rental and Oil Services, which was listed in 1984 and is currently in the final fazes; the Ryeland Road Arsenic, a site listed in 2004 at which ferns were used for bioremediation; and the Vineland Chemical Company, Inc., which was funded by the Recovery Act. The Palmerton Zinc Superfund Site[30] is one of the relative success stories of the Philadelphia area. The area in Carbon County, PA along the Appalachian Trail at the top of Blue Mountain was re-vegetated and is on track to return to its natural habitat.
The East Tenth Street superfund site is a 36-acre plot in an industrialized area of Marcus Hook, PA, which was proposed to the NPL in January of 1994. The site went through multiple stages of ownership starting in 1910 when the American Viscose Company produced Rayon and then switched to cellophane in 1958. From 1963-1977, the FMC Corporation produced cellophane as well and then handed a parcel of the land over to Envirosafe Services.  The parcel was then purchased by the Marcus Hook Processing Inc., a subsidiary of Envirosafe. This 4.25 acres of contaminated land has now gone through multiple environmental assessments. One of them, conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (PADER), found employees excavating an underground solvent storage tank farm that consisted of thirty tanks and disposing o::::Desktop:Screen Shot 2012-04-19 at 10.10.24 AM.pngf the contents on the bare soil of the site. A 1990 investigation showed tanks, leaking transformers, and asbestos within and outside of the site’s buildings. In 1990, an EPA evaluation revealed asbestos, PCBs, and other hazardous materials that had been mishandled during the demolition. They also discovered a sludge filled tunnel on one of the lots. The soil contains PCBs, asbestos, heavy metals, and other organic contaminants, the sludge filled tunnel contains chloroform, cadmium, and mercury, and sediments in the creek contain PCBs. The EPA website concludes that “Touching or ingesting contaminated groundwater, soils, surface water, or sediments poses a health risk.”[31] Despite the fact that the site is located next to the Marcus Hook Creek, a state-designated area for the protection of aquatic life, the site is still not listed on the NPL and hardly any remediation has been done. This site represents a failure of the Superfund program. Attempts to talk to the EPA site’s listed Community Involvement Coordinator failed and other sources told me that it was not possible to receive any further information on the site.
On the other end of the spectrum, the most recent NPL listings is the former Metro Container Corporation in Trainer, Delaware County, which was added on March 13, 2012. The site has a lagoon that was used for industrial purposes for several decades by multiple companies. The property is now owned by an industrial painting company, Trainer Industries, which uses it for storage[32]. It has been an industrial site since the19th century. From 1920 to 1959, the site was used as a chemical manufacturing plant by Stauffer Chemical Company.  In 1991, owners of the Metro Container Corporation, a steel drum reconditioning plant, pled guilty to charges that they had dumped hazardous waste and discharged contaminated water into Stoney Creek.[33] However, Metro had filed for bankruptcy in 1987, so liability funding for the site is complicated.  The unlined lagoon was filled with soil and artificial fill materials, which did nothing to protect the surrounding area from contamination. The soils are now contaminated with PCBs, inorganics, PAHs (Polyaromatic hydrocarbons), and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Assessment reveals that there is potential to contaminate the tidal flats of the Delaware and the river itself.
Alex Mendell, the Community Involvement Coordinator for the Metro Container Corporation Superfund site in Trainer described himself as the liaison between the scientists and community members, a translator of sorts between the technical and laymen terms. He finds his job “rewarding, although often difficult because I does my best to remain transparent to the community members.” When asked whether there was a community push to put the site on the NPL, he responded, “The public is always a part of the process – we visited the site a number of times and communicated with members of the community during the proposal.” He emphasized the value of one-on-one communication and went door to door to talk with as many residents as possible. In Trainer, the mayor lives right in the community, which, Mendell says, made communication easier. He made fact sheets and hosted open houses. They also use a CIP – Community Involvement Plan, a comprehensive plan that highlights questions about better communicating information to the community. His thoughts on efficiency included the importance of social media and learning how to better engage with it in the future.  Overall, Mendell has seen that the public is relatively aware of the project’s details, the site, and the remediation plan – thanks in most part his own outreach efforts.[34]
One of the best measures of success is the public perception of the program, especially since the Superfund was born from public discontent with government response to hazardous materials.  The Joel Best sociological model of framing separates a topic into four main components: experts, activists, media, and politicians, and then analyzes the issue from each of these angles.  All four of these then influence the general public perception of the issue. Experts believe that the Superfund is a thorough process. Activists generally believe that it is too slow, however, this is inherent in the role of activists, because people only stand up when they feel something is wrong. The media hardly gives the Superfund any attention because it is such a slow moving issue. When there is a dramatic change or if the activists make a big enough splash to garner some attention it is generally covered with a negative tilt.  As far as politicians, currently democrats are in favor of the EPA, and extrapolating would be in favor the Superfund, while republicans are against it, saying that it hurts business and that the EPA is overfunded. These four perspectives reveal the two common sentiments of the general public – ignorance and negativity.
In an interview with “Chris,” a responder for the Superfund General Information Hotline, they receive a “decent number of calls from citizens, who are mot often looking for information on sites in their community.” When asked about the average level of knowledge possessed by callers, her responded that “Education varies, some have done a significant amount of research and want to get involved, and others have just found out that there is a site in their community and are curious to learn more.” However, he also mentioned that the hotline does not have any additional information from what is on the extensive public EPA Superfund branch of their website. He did also indicate that, despite this fact, the hotline is efficient because many citizens do not know how to navigate the website and it is a useful venting location for people who are frustrated and want to complain.[35] There is no formal tracking devise for complaints, so the public may see the hotline as a waste of taxpayer dollars.
The next interview was conducted with “Dawn,” a librarian for the Superfund program. She was willing to share her personal opinion on the Superfund. Her main points were that funding is not always available and that many sites involve significant controversy stemming from residents skepticism of remediation’s interference and the slow speed of the program. She stresses that each site is different: often funding is not available and communities vary in their involvement. There is also significant difference between federal sites and those that are privately owned.
Overall, the documentation of the Superfund Program, and the incredible about of detail available to the public, is remarkable. The website and hotlines keep the process as transparent as possible – a major feat for a government-run program. However, there are several components that could be made more efficient. Streamlining of the litigation and liability process, while difficult, would save a significant amount of money and time. In addition, the national general hotline is likely repetitive and a waste of resources. Overall the program is successful at doing what it was set up to do – remediate sites – however, this does not solve the ever-growing problem of industrial contamination. Stricter regulations must be put on companies to prevent further damage to the United States. A major coup of industrial lobbyists in Washington is absolutely crucial to making sure that the Superfund is a success. The Superfund is worth it, but it should not be paid for by American tax dollars. Public sentiment is generally negative because news stories generally only focus on this angle, but most community involvement is more positive.

Bibliography / Works Cited
Associated Press. "EPA Approves Philly-area Plant for Superfund List." York Dispatch. Media News Group, 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. <>.

Barnett, Harold C. Toxic Debts and the Superfund Dilemma. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1994. Print.

"East Tenth Street." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, Jan. 2008. Web. 2 Mar. 2012. <>.

"Bhopal: India Wants Compensation Doubled." BBC News. BBC, 3 Dec. 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2012. <>.

Hamilton, James. Regulation through Revelation: The Origin, Politics, and Impacts of the Toxics Release Inventory Program. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.

Hird, John A. Superfund: The Political Economy of Environmental Risk. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Print.

Revesz, Richard L., and Richard B. Stewart. Analyzing Superfund: Economics, Science, and Law. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 1995. Print.

Seneca, Roy. "Advanced Search." Aerial Re-vegetation Resumes on Appalachian Trail Portion. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2012. <!OpenDocument>.

United States. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER). Superfund National Accomplishments Summary Fiscal Year 2010. Environmental Protection Agency, 2011. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. <>.

United States. Washington State Department of Ecology. What Is the Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA)? Access Washington. Web. 1 Mar. 2012. <>.

Wood, Anthony R. "Trainer Site Makes EPA Superfund List; Who Pays?" Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2012. <>.

[1] Brennan, Morgan. "America's 10 Most Toxic Cities." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2012. <>.
[2] Wood, A. (2012, April 11). Email interview.
[3] Hamilton, James. Regulation through Revelation: The Origin, Politics, and Impacts of the Toxics Release Inventory Program. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005), 16.
[4] Hamilton, 18.
[5]  "Bhopal: India Wants Compensation Doubled." BBC News. BBC (3 Dec. 2012) <>.
[6] United States. Washington State Department of Ecology. What Is the Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA)? Access Washington. <>.
[7] Hamilton, 10
[8] United States. Washington State Department of Ecology. What Is the Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA)? Access Washington. <>.
[9] Hamilton, 176
[10] Hamilton, 73
[11] Hamilton, 176
[12] Hamilton, 17
[13] Hird, 14
[16] Hird, John A. Superfund: The Political Economy of Environmental Risk. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994), 138.
[18] Hird, 31
[19] Hird, 31
[20] Hird, 56
[21] Hamilton, 241
[22] Hamilton, 114
[23] Hamilton, 114
[24] Hamilton, 241
[25] Hird, 138
[26] United States. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER). Superfund National Accomplishments Summary Fiscal Year 2010. Environmental Protection Agency, 2011. Web. <>.
[27] United States. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER). Superfund National Accomplishments Summary Fiscal Year 2010. Environmental Protection Agency, 2011. Web. <>.
[28] Brennan, Morgan. "America's 10 Most Toxic Cities." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2012. <>.
[29] "Sperling's Best Places to Live." Best Places to Live. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. <>.
[30]Seneca, Roy. Aerial Re-vegetation Resumes on Appalachian Trail Portion, <!OpenDocument> (12 Mar. 2012).
[31] "East Tenth Street." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, (Jan. 2008) <>.
[32] Associated Press. "EPA Approves Philly-area Plant for Superfund List." York Dispatch. Media News Group, (13 Mar. 2012) <>.
[33] Wood, Anthony R. "Trainer Site Makes EPA Superfund List; Who Pays?" Philadelphia Inquirer, (13 Mar. 2012) <>.
[34] "Alex Mendell." Telephone interview. 13 Apr. 2012.
[35] “Chris on the Superfund Hotline”

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