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

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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.