Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Superfund site of the week: 3 reasons CERCLA cleanups matter to California

Missing in action last week was our regular Superfund Site of the Week feature. That's because I was missing in action, enjoying a rustic beach-house vacation that involved no Internet. So this week Pacific Swell decided to reset what Superfund is all about. I'm back explaining what it is and giving you three reasons to care in California. 

Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, the state with the greatest number of sites under federal Environmental Protection Agency supervision is…New Jersey. 112 sites. (I just haven't got the heart for the obvious joke, maybe because I'm a huge fan of Wiliam Carlos Williams, who proves that the Garden state incubates beauty, too.) But don't worry, Californians! We're third in hazardous wastes. (What up, steel industry!) One behind Pennsylvania, California has 94 Superfund sites to its credit. Sheer volume isn't your big reason to pay attention, though. 

  1. Risks to Human Health (and research about that) One thing calling something a Superfund site does is, it kicks off a hazard assessment for human health: what's there that could make people sick? Once they figure that part out, they can assess the risk: how much exposure to that particular hazard can harm people. Sites in southern California related to the rise of aerospace have seen chemicals leach into soil and groundwater. People might not eat soil, but they do things like drink milk from cows that grazed on tainted land, and eat fish that swim in and consumer smaller creatures near sediment contamination in the ocean. People (this means you, unless you're a robot) also drink water pumped from underground reservoirs and aquifers. Spilled chemicals on land can end up in that water.  Not surprisingly, California's fertile ground for research work about toxic wastes people release into land, sea, and air, not just here but around the country. 
  2. Your Public Representatives at work! That contamination that threatens people? Can be cleaned up. CERCLA, in fact, mandates it. Unfortunately for everybody, CERCLA's funding has been spotty, raided for other things in the eighties, its support - a tax - expired 16 years ago. That upped pressure on the PRPs - potentially responsible parties - the companies and entities that left toxic materials behind. Beyond that, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling a few years back in Shell Oil Co. v. United States - a case about a site in Arvin, CA - that limited the reach of the liability the EPA can impose on companies. Potentially responsible parties have traditionally paid for Superfund clean up: after all, they made the mess. But some of the companies that made the mess don't exist anymore, and others have lawyers with a huge appetite for litigation. Over time, the EPA has grown slower on the draw to take companies to court All that adds up to public officials going after chunks of money where they can find them: earmarks, for example, or in stimulus funding. It's an especially fun game to watch in California. Southern California lawmakers are especially concerned about rocket fuel cleanup; we'll talk about that in future posts. 
  3. Property Value Impacts. Having toxic materials under or near your property is gonna change its value. Which is why the National Association of Realtors has a field guide to the effects of hazardous waste on your real estate. A few years back the EPA looked into the impacts of Superfund designation on property value: in part, because the agency was interested in the net positive value the cleanup program of CERCLA could provide. The summary of the report seems to say the obvious: that living near a toxic waste dump is bad. But more information from the EPA about how bad, and why, and how well cleanup works to improve health value? You're going to have to wait for that. The EPA is working on such a document, but it's not out yet. 

We'll return next week to profiling specific Superfund sites. In the meantime, you can click on the tags for "superfund site of the week" or superfund to see what we've done so far. 


(Photo by Telestar Logistics via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.)