Superfund Site Cleanups: “A Merry-Go-Round of Toxic Waste”

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Newtown Creek Newtown Creek (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

The Superfund program cleans up the nation’s toxic waste. But a joint investigation between the Guardian US and The Center for Investigative Reporting has found that cleaning up toxic waste can create its own legacy of environmental problems. Matt Drange, business reporter, and Susanne Rust, an environment reporter, at the Center for Investigative Reporting, discuss their investigation Toxic Trail.


Drange and Rust started their investigation by looking at that chemical waste that’s pumped from a Superfund site in Silicon Valley in California and is then sent to treatment plants as far away as Kentucky and Pennsylvania. The waste is then treated at very high temperatures, creating new, dangerous chemicals which are then captured and sent on to another series of treatment plants.

Toxic waste at 450 Superfund sites is handled using the decades-old technique known as "pump and treat." However, Drange notes, it’s been shown that it’s ineffective after a certain point. At the Silicon Valley site, using pump and treat at the current rate, it will take another 700 years to clean the site because the pumping itself can end up moving toxic chemicals into the groundwater. Rust says, "If you just left it alone, those chemicals would be removed over time."

In most cases, after the waste is shipped off of Superfund sites, it’s often burned, creating a pile of toxic ash and contaminated scrubbers. This process creates even more toxic waste, which then has to be treated and disposed of. Rust notes, “It just keeps getting moved around and around and around.”

The hazard chemicals known as dioxins are byproducts of this process. The Environmental Protection Agency, which runs the Superfund program, is very concerned about dioxins, which are able to migrate around the globe, thanks to wind and ocean currents.

One of the problems, Drange and Rust say, is that the EPA looks at the Superfund program on a site-by-site basis, making it hard to get a big picture about the waste generated and how it’s treated. 


Matt Drange and Susanne Rust

Comments [3]

Jane Murphy from New Jersey

I would like to share my own personal experience in dealing with a ground water contamination in regards to my fathers estate. Currently a pump & treat system is in effect, and has been since August 2012. The property is serviced by the city water supply. I think leaving the product in the ground would have been the best way to go. In spite of my very best efforts, the estate remains in limbo. The property cannot be sold until I have recieved a "No Further Action Letter" from the NJDEP. The NJDEP case for this property was opened in May of 2010, when the underground home heating oil tank was removed. It is now March 2014.

Jane Murphy


Mar. 27 2014 11:25 AM
Amy from Manhattan

But what will the chemicals in the ground be broken down into? Breaking down chemicals produces other chemicals; are the products safe? And could toxins be processed w/other chemicals to form nontoxic compounds, like sodium & chlorine, each highly toxic by itself, combining to produce table salt (sodium chloride)?

Mar. 25 2014 01:35 PM
GoWAnusCAnal from NYC

When I look into the waters of the Gowanus Canal I can't envision a time those waters won't reflect all the metallic colors of the rainbow.

Mar. 25 2014 12:31 PM

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