News Analysis: Investigators Look at High Risk Superfund Sites

It's been 27 years since the US Environmental Protection Agency set up the Superfund Program. Superfund was established to identify and clean up some of the country's worst toxic waste sites. A recent year- long study by The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism center, says that Superfund isn't living up to its promise of safer, toxin- free communities. Ann Murray joins Matthew Craig to discuss a part of what the investigation uncovered.

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OPEN: It's been 27 years since the US Environmental Protection Agency set up the Superfund Program. Superfund was established to identify and clean up some of the country's worst toxic waste sites. A recent year- long study by The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism center, says that Superfund isn't living up to its promise of safer, toxin- free communities. Ann Murray is here to discuss a part of what the investigation uncovered.

M: One part of the overall study looks at 114 Superfund sites that are "uncontrolled". What does that mean?

A: The sites are considered uncontrolled by EPA because the toxins and hazardous chemicals contaminating them could easily reach people either by air, ground or surface water or soil. Scientists have linked cancers, heart and lung diseases, and neurodevelopmental problems in kids to some of the contaminants on these sites. The Center found that 20 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of these uncontrolled Superfund areas.

M: It sounds as though EPA is being forthcoming by identifying these uncontrolled sites.

A: The study concludes that, in fact, EPA has been pretty secretive about a lot of information beyond just identifying these Superfund locations.

M: What kinds of information has EPA been reluctant to release?

A: A number of things: including which sites are the most dangerous, plans to clean up each site, funding for each clean up and whether the agency is looking into about 180 more sites that EPA says may present "uncontrolled" risks for people.

M: Why haven't these additional sites been classified as a risk to human health?

A: Because EPA says they don't have enough information yet.

M: I assume people have made requests for the specifics about these sites? Congress has oversight. Have legislators had any luck getting information?

A: Barbara Boxer from California and Barack Obama have had limited success but a lot of the information was marked by EPA as restricted to the general public.

M: I thought that was the point of Superfund: to let the public know what kind of toxic dangers exist in communities. Is that right?

A: Yes, that's right. Public interest groups have protested the fact that information is being withheld from Congress and communities.

M: What did the study uncover about uncontrolled Superfund sites?

A: New Jersey has the most Superfund sites and the most sites that aren't controlled. New York and California are tied for second place with seven sites a piece. Pennsylvania doesn't have any uncontrolled sites.But investigators aren't sure that the list of sites is accurate.

M: What do you mean?

A: About 50 uncontrolled sites that were on the list in June 2006 were off the list by October 2006. There's a lot of doubt by scientists that EPA could have controlled human exposure to contaminants in just four months.

M: How did EPA explain that quick fix?

A:The agency said the list changed because information was updated by EPA regional offices that summer.

M: What types of contaminants are we talking about on these uncontrolled sites?

A:EPA lists about 260 contaminants including arsenic, lead, mercury and vinyl chloride. All considered to be really dangerous to human health.

M: How did the Center for Investigative Integrity uncover what they did in this part of the study?

A: The Center monitored fluctuations of the list of Superfund sites that the EPA listed as "not under control" . They downloaded the data from the EPA Web site monthly and compared more recent versions to previous versions.

M: What about the number of contaminants?
A:For the number of contaminants found at these sites, the Center got EPA data through a formal request. The Center also submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for correspondence between the EPA and Congress.

M: What does the Center hope will happen now that this information is out?

A: Of course, investigators at the Center are journalists..not advocates. But generally the hope is that EPA will step up the release of information to Congress and the public.Perhaps Congressional and public pressure will speed up clean up of these really dangerous Superfund sites.

M: Thanks, Ann.

A: You're welcome.