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For the last 35 years, the U.S. government has addressed hazardous waste sites with what’s known as the Superfund program. The idea is to clean up chemical waste at sites like Love Canal in Upstate New York — the site that made headlines in the late 70s when residents began noticing an increase in cancers, miscarriages, birth defects and unexplained illness.
Today, the Superfund program includes more than 1,300 toxic waste sites scattered throughout the country. But according reporters Matt Drange and Susanne Rust, the process can sometimes be inefficient or ineffective, and in other cases leads to pollutants as dangerous as those the government is trying to remove.
Their report “Toxic Trail,” a joint collaboration between the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian, reveals that the movement of waste to treatment sites — sometimes thousands of miles away — creates a whole new set of environmental problems, many of which go unchecked.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson checks in with Drange and then turns to California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, whose district includes 11 Superfund sites.
She recently wrote to EPA officials asking for information about how waste is monitored once it leaves Superfund facilities and whether there are alternatives to some of the methods currently used at certain clean-up sites.
The EPA sent Here & Now a detailed response to this story and the report by The Guardian and Center for Investigative reporting. Read it here.
Matt Drange on what’s going wrong with the cleanup of Superfund sites
“A lot of things. We looked at a collection of Superfund sites here in Silicon Valley, which are complex groundwater sites, and they’re really difficult to clean and nobody really has a great solution for how to clean them. And right now the current solution is to pump the pollution from the ground water to the surface — and you can think of it as sort of a large Britta filter. And once those filters are full with contaminants, in this case heavy industrial solvents used in the old chip manufacturing days — you know, Intel and Fairchild and all those companies — once that filter’s full, they then send it off for treatment, and that’s really where all the problems start.”
Drange on how that causes a ‘toxic trail’
“Just by doing that process … putting the filter in the back of a big rig truck, driving it 2,600 miles across the country, burning it, you’re creating not only a ton — tons in fact — of greenhouse gases, but by burning you also release dioxins, which are part of the EPA’s ‘dirty dozen’ chemicals, and they’re very harmful. They build up in the food supply and eventually humans are exposed to them when they eat their food.”
Congresswoman Ana Eshoo on what she has asked the EPA to do
“The report raised, I think, some very important questions. And I asked three questions really based on the findings of the report, of the EPA, and that is to what extent the EPA is monitoring the emissions from the transport and the treatment of toxic waste, has the EPA investigated alternatives to current treatment methods and does the EPA have, very importantly, sufficient regulatory authority to monitor and control the toxic pollutants generated after removal. And so I’m looking forward to their response.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW, and for more than 30 years the government has addressed hazardous waste sites with a program known as the Superfund. Its goal is to clean up more than 1,300 toxic waste sites like the now-infamous Love Canal in Upstate New York. But an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian U.S. finds the removal of that toxic waste is causing problems elsewhere.
Matt Drange and Susanne Rust did the report, and Matt Drange joins us now from Emeryville, California. Welcome.
MATT DRANGE: Thanks for having me.
HOBSON: Well, let's start right at the beginning. What is going wrong with the cleanup of these Superfund sites?
DRANGE: A lot of things. We looked at a collection of Superfund sites here in Silicon Valley, actually, which are complex groundwater sites, and they're really difficult to clean, and nobody really has a great solution for how to clean them. And right now the current solution is to pump the pollution from the ground water to the surface. And you can think of it as sort of a large Britta filter.
And once those filters are full with contaminants, in this case heavy industrial solvents used in the old chip manufacturing days, you know, Intel and Fairchild and all those companies, once that filter's full, they then send it off for treatment, and that's kind of really where all the problems start.
HOBSON: And that's exactly what your investigation tracked, was what happens to this waste when it leaves the Superfund site and where it goes. So where does it go?
DRANGE: Right, so this particular type of waste will go to what's called a carbon regeneration plant, and we followed it specifically to a plant in eastern Kentucky called the Calgon Carbon Corporation, right in the heart of Appalachia. Once it gets there, the plant will put it through a large sort of multi-story furnace to essentially super-heat it and separate out the pollution from the carbon, which is what's filtering it.
HOBSON: And what's the issue then?
DRANGE: Well, the issue is that just by doing that process that we just described, sort of putting the filter in the back of a big rig truck, driving it 2,600 miles across the country, burning it, you're creating not only a ton - tons, in fact, of greenhouse gases, but by burning it you also release what's called dioxins, which are part of the EPA's dirty dozen chemicals.
And they're very harmful. They build up in the food supply, and eventually humans are exposed to them when they eat their food.
HOBSON: So the problem is you're taking the waste out of the Superfund site, but you're actually leaving a trail of waste all the way to the final destination.
DRANGE: Exactly, and that destination in Kentucky, that's just the first stop. Once that treatment process that we just described is complete, you're left with a big pile of toxic ash and other filters that filter that ash so that some of it doesn't escape into the atmosphere.
And then they send those filters and that ash to another plant. In this case, we followed it to a plant in Belleville, Michigan, outside of Detroit. And at that plant they have a massive hazardous waste landfill, as well as another host of treatment processes that they go through, which just get repeated again and again and again, further down the line.
HOBSON: Well, what is the alternative then, Matt? What should they be doing?
DRANGE: The reality is we don't actually know what the best solution is right now. One of the solutions that's in what the EPA considers a pilot phase is what's called bioremediation. And unlike pump and treat, which is the system we just described, bioremediation injects chemical-eating microbes into the ground, which essentially mitigate the pollution without creating any toxic trail.
And so that's just one solution, but it also has its limitations too.
HOBSON: Well, and when you talk about limitations, one of the problems is cost. Who is going to pay not just to dispose of this waste in a cleaner way but also to monitor what's happening with it once it leaves the Superfund site?
DRANGE: Right, right, the cost is a huge factor. At this one site we looked at alone, for example, companies who are responsible for cleaning it under the EPA Superfund law, they've spent more than $100 million cleaning it over 30 years. So it's a lot of private business cost, but it's also a lot of government cost.
The EPA has oversight costs. They have staff watching these sites, watching what they do. The problem is the EPA doesn't look at all of the problems that happen once the waste leaves the site. They consider their job done.
HOBSON: All the waste we're talking about here is years old. Are companies still producing this kind of toxic waste?
DRANGE: Absolutely. Companies are still producing this exact type of waste, just not in Silicon Valley. So most of the chip manufacturing and production that used to happen there has been outsourced both abroad and to other states. And so other states that are big hubs of this kind of thing right now are actually Upstate New York, Texas, New Mexico, to name a few, and abroad the vast majority of chip manufacturing happens in Taiwan, North Korea and China. That's where most of these chemicals and these solvents are still being used today.
HOBSON: This does bring up a bigger question, Matt Drange, and that is: Is there any way to really get rid of this kind of toxic waste at all?
DRANGE: You're never throwing something away. It's always going somewhere. It's just a matter of where that is and what happens to it there. And so right now what we're doing is really just sloughing off our problems on someone else, and we need to come up with a solution to where we're actually fixing it, not just kicking the responsibility down this toxic trail of waste.
HOBSON: Matt Drange is a business reporter. He and environment reporter Susanne Rust's report, called "Toxic Trail," was produced in a collaboration between The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian U.S. Matt, thanks so much for talking with us.
DRANGE: Thank you.
HOBSON: Well, one person who took note of Matt's reporting and wants to do something about the problem is Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. She's a California Democrat, and there are 10 Superfund sites in her district, including the one profiled in the report. She's written a letter to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, and she joins us now on the line. Congresswoman, welcome.
REPRESENTATIVE ANNA ESHOO: Thank you, it's wonderful to be with you.
HOBSON: Well, what have you asked the EPA to do exactly?
ESHOO: The report raised, I think, some very important questions. And I asked three questions really based on the findings of the report of the EPA, and that is to what extent the EPA is monitoring the emissions from the transport and the treatment of toxic waste; has the EPA investigated alternatives to current treatment methods; and does the EPA very importantly have sufficient regulatory authority to monitor and control the toxic pollutants generated after removals. And so I'm looking forward to their response.
HOBSON: So you haven't gotten any response yet from the EPA?
ESHOO: Not yet, no.
HOBSON: Do you think that the EPA needs more money? Because one of the things that we just heard from Matt Drange is that this is just a very difficult process. It's hard to monitor what happens to the waste between the point that it leaves the Superfund site and when it gets to where it's going next. It's just hard to do, and the EPA may not have enough employees to monitor all that.
ESHOO: Well, I think that, as I said, the ball is really in the EPA's hands now, and I'll await their very important response to the serious questions that I raised with them. There's no doubt that the federal agencies are having problems with their budgets because there were deep budget cuts, then there was sequestration, but that's up to them to report back to me.
HOBSON: Anna Eshoo is a congresswoman from the 18th District in California. She's a Democrat. Thank you so much for joining us.
ESHOO: Thank you for your interest in this; I appreciate it.
HOBSON: And by the way, we reached out to the EPA. They told us that regardless of whether waste is destroyed or removed, it is done within a framework that ensures that byproducts are safely managed with the smallest environmental impact possible. They also say that it's factually incorrect that the ongoing pump and treat cleanup at the California Superfund site that's described in the investigation is not working, and they note that while the cost of cleanup is high, the cost of not cleaning up is higher.
For the complete statement, you can go to our website, hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.