This story began with a simple question: What happens to the waste that’s pulled from the ground beneath Silicon Valley’s Superfund sites?
A lot, it turns out. The waste goes on a journey that crisscrosses the country, revealing the environmental toll of a landmark cleanup program that’s supposed to be protecting humans and the environment from toxic waste.
Here are six weak points in the Superfund system identified by our reporting:
1. No one accounts for the environmental effects of the toxic trail that follows cleanup.
The Environmental Protection Agency knows that the trail has serious side effects. But the agency chooses not to quantify or monitor them.
That means the EPA can’t measure whether the cleanup of these sites is worth it. The Silicon Valley site central to our story creates a host of unintended consequences – even as cleanup there seems futile.
2. EPA cleanup goals are in many cases unrealistic.
The EPA requires that groundwater at Superfund sites be treated until it’s clean enough to drink. In Silicon Valley’s case, that could take 700 years, according to a study of the site by an environmental consulting firm.
While time frames vary, scores of other sites also can’t meet the EPA’s standards. In these cases, experts say that striving for drinking water standards is impractical and counterproductive.
3. The technology being used to clean up about one-third of Superfund sites won’t work in the long run.
In case after case, the EPA’s own inspectors have identified serious shortcomings with the technology being used for cleanup, known as “pump and treat.” While it works in some instances, EPA inspections show it isn’t working at hundreds of sites. Yet, treatment continues.
4. No current technology can clean these sites to the government’s standards.
A recent report from the National Research Council found that there isn’t any currently available technology that will quickly and effectively clean these sites.
An emerging solution among experts is to do nothing. At many sites, they say the most effective answer is to allow the chemicals to break down naturally. Companies and governments would monitor the sites to make sure humans aren’t exposed to the chemicals.
“What’s crazy to me is that here we are in the heart of the tech world, the land of innovation, and we don’t have a technology that can clean this site anytime soon,” said Lenny Siegel, the executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, an activist group that seeks to engage the public on Superfund cleanup.
5. Tracking waste once it leaves a site is almost impossible.
When the Superfund law was enacted in the 1980s, Congress was concerned that it would create more toxic waste sites by shipping out Superfund waste.
Lawmakers and panels called for regulators to closely monitor contaminants. The EPA set up its system for tracking hazardous waste to follow it “from cradle to grave.” But regulators remain unable to do this, despite decades of work and billions of dollars spent on a tracking system.
That system is still paper-based and spread across states. The data can’t be easily put together and analyzed to spot trends or major problems.
6. Major decisions are left to private companies.
It’s up to companies responsible for cleaning the sites to vet the facilities where they send waste. The result is that waste is routinely shipped and treated at plants with well-documented histories of environmental violations.
Each year, companies decide whether the waste leaving their site will be considered hazardous or not based on sample tests. If the waste is deemed hazardous, it’s more closely regulated. If it’s nonhazardous, it can be disposed of more inexpensively and with far less oversight.
The companies also drive decisions on what technology gets used for cleanups. They can petition the EPA to change their cleanup methods. Even if the technology isn’t working, companies can be loath to change if they’re following EPA plans and already have invested in the infrastructure for the pump-and-treat system.