A Silicon Valley lawmaker has opened an inquiry into the toxic trail of environmental damage created by the Superfund cleanup program.

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, seen in 2010, wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking for more details about its Superfund cleanup program. Her district, in the heart of Silicon Valley, includes several Superfund sites. Credit: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, today requested details on how the Environmental Protection Agency deals with the pollution that’s left behind by treating and shipping toxic waste across the country and whether it’s looked into alternative cleanup methods.

In a letter to EPA chief Gina McCarthy, Eshoo says the Superfund law has “been undoubtedly successful at cleaning up toxic waste sites.”

“However, what I’m concerned about is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is failing to properly monitor and regulate the emissions associated with remediating the toxic pollutants recovered from Superfund sites,” she writes.

The inquiry comes two weeks after The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian published an investigation that revealed as many as one-third of all Superfund sites could be causing more harm than good.

Once waste leaves the sites, it crisscrosses the country in a trail with no clear end. The constant treatment, shipping and burning of waste releases greenhouses gases and gives way to danger that’s as alarming as the one that’s trying to be cleaned – dioxins linked to cancer.

Meanwhile, the cleanup efforts causing the damage in many cases are no longer effective. At one site in Silicon Valley, it would take 700 years of continuous treatment to make it clean to EPA standards.

The shortcomings from Superfund cleanup hit close to home for Eshoo, whose district – in the heart of Silicon Valley – includes 11 Superfund sites.

She is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change. She was not immediately available for comment today, but a spokesman for her office said her letter was meant to establish key facts “before the congresswoman moves forward with this.”

Eshoo wants to know whether the EPA has investigated alternatives to the outdated treatment method, known as “pump and treat,” being used in Silicon Valley and hundreds of other sites.

In her letter, she asks McCarthy if the EPA monitors carbon dioxide emissions and the creation of dioxins by treatment. She also asks whether the EPA has the authority to track these emissions, or whether it would need congressional action to do so.

McCarthy, who received the letter from Eshoo this afternoon, did not respond to requests for comment.

The “EPA takes the issues of the protectiveness of the cleanup and disposal of contaminants, including the emissions of GHG (greenhouse gases), very seriously in the Superfund program,” a spokeswoman from McCarthy’s office said in an email. “We will review the letter and provide a detailed response regarding our efforts in the areas that were identified.”

Matt Drange is a reporter for Reveal, covering the business of guns. He previously reported on Silicon Valley and the intersection of technology and the environment. He won a James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists' Northern California chapter for his work on the Toxic Trail investigation, which exposed how mismanagement of Superfund cleanup sites often leads to substantially more harm than good. Prior to joining Reveal, Drange worked for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, where he wrote about malfeasance in state government and the influence of money in politics. Drange started his career covering police and courts for the Eureka Times-Standard in California. He earned a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and did his undergraduate work at Humboldt State University. Drange is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Susanne Rust is a former investigative reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting who focused on the environment. Before joining CIR, Susanne held a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. She began her journalism career in 2003 at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In her last three years at the Journal Sentinel, she focused much of her reporting on dangerous chemicals and lax regulations, working with colleagues Meg Kissinger and Cary Spivak. The series “Chemical Fallout” won numerous national awards, including a Sigma Delta Chi Award, George Polk Award, and two Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Awards in 2009 and 2010. The series also won the John B. Oakes Award for environmental reporting. Susanne and Meg were finalists in 2009 for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting. She also shared a National Headliner Award in 2010 for a series on conflicts of interest involving doctors and research at the University of Wisconsin.