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Federal Toxic Waste Treatment (SUPERFUND/NPL) Sites (2010)

This map feature depicts the locations of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulated Superfund/National Priority List sites in the state of Florida. They are labeled by name. A Superfund/National Priority List site is a place that has become heavily contaminated with materials or chemicals which are highly hazardous to humans or the environment. In other words, Superfund sites are really, really bad news. The very fact that a place is given Superfund status by the EPA means that it poses a health risk to some of the people who work within it or live around it. Many people try to avoid living near Superfund sites because they fear that the sites will negatively affect their health and may cause them difficulties if they ever try to resell their home.

What is the Superfund Program?

To help you understand what these sites are and the hazards they pose, we first have to cover what the Superfund program is. The Superfund program is an environmental program established by the federal government to clean up hazardous waste sites. The Superfund program was created by congress with the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980. The Act allows the EPA to clean up toxic waste dumps such as the infamous Love Canal, and it allows the agency to compel parties responsible for the pollution to help pay for the remediation efforts.

How do places get designated as Superfund Sites?

The first step in giving a site Superfund status is identifying it. Potential sites are brought to the attention of the EPA through state referrals, citizen complaints and federal/state reporting requirements. After a site has been identified, the EPA will conduct a Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection. At this stage, the EPA is looking for potentially hazardous substances, ways those substances could get into the surrounding environment and the people, animals, or plants that could be harmed by the substances.

After the Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection are complete, the data gathered from the site are used to calculate a score for what is called the Hazard Ranking System (HRS). The HRS is basically just what its name suggests; it is a mathematical model that the EPA uses to evaluate the danger of newly identified sites. The toxicity of the chemicals present, the size of the neighboring population and the ways which contamination can be spread are all factors which are used to calculate the HRS score. For example, given the same type and volume of contamination, a site that is closer to a large human population center or valuable environmental resource will have a higher HRS score than one in a lightly populated area or a desert. If a site ends up getting a low enough score, the EPA may conclude that it poses no real danger to people or the environment. At this point the EPA will take no further action and leave the site alone - no cleanup activities will take place. However, if the site scores highly - indicating that it poses a real risk to human health and the environment, it will be added to the National Priority List (NPL). Sites on the National Priority List are given Superfund status - meaning that the federal government will step and begin cleaning up the site (they will also finance the remediation efforts to the degree necessary).

It's important to note that while the sites on the NPL are dangerous, their presence on the list does not necessarily mean they are the most dangerous in the United States. The EPA explains that the NPL serves mostly as an information and management tool. Specifically, the NPL helps the EPA to:

1. determine which sites need further investigation in order to assess the extent of the risks posed by the site to humans and the environment

2. identify which CERCLA-financed cleanup methods are appropriate

3. notify the public of sites the EPA believes need further investigation

4. serve notice to potentially responsible parties (current and past owners of the property) that the EPA may begin CERCLA-financed cleanup

Once a site has been identified as hazardous enough to humans or the environment to warrant its addition to the NPL, the EPA controls the cleanup process. In other words, the government, not the person or business who owns the contaminated site decides how clean the area must be and what methods will be used to facilitate remediation. The EPA can either conduct the cleanup itself or force the private entity who owns the site to begin cleanup activities. The EPA can demand whatever cleanup methods it sees fit (regardless of how expensive they are). To the degree possible, the EPA will usually make the party who owns the contamination site pay for its cleanup, but in practice the government often gets stuck with at least part of the bill due to the expense of most decontamination efforts.

How does the EPA clean up Superfund sites?

After a site has been added to the NPL the EPA will conduct a Remedial Investigation and a Feasibility Study. These are a lot like the Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection discussed earlier, but they go into much more depth. While the Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection collect just enough information to calculate the HRS score, the Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study are designed to figure out exactly what's going on at the site and discover what needs to be done to clean it up. In the Remedial Investigation, the exact type and extent of contamination at the site is determined; the associated health and environmental risks posed by the pollution are also evaluated. The purpose of the Feasibility Study on the other hand is to develop and evaluate various cleanup options. The amount of contamination the EPA must clean up is governed by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act and other legislation. In other words, the EPA must clean up the site so that it meets the minimum standards of the RCRA, Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Air Act (plus other applicable statues). The EPA cannot arbitrarily decide to stop cleanup. It must reduce the concentration of pollutants on and around the site to "safe" levels.

After issuing a proposed remedial action and taking public comments, the EPA will issue what is called a Record of Decision (ROD). The ROD represents the EPA's final decision on how to go about cleaning up the site. Often there are many different methods the EPA can use to clean up a site which differ based on cost, time, effectiveness and many other factors. The ROD specifies which remedial method the EPA has chosen to facilitate cleanup, it also contains performance standards which are criteria the selected remedial action must attain (and maintain) to ensure that it meets the objectives of protecting public health and the environment.

After the remedial operations have finished and the concentration of pollutants has been reduced to a level acceptable by the applicable state and federal statues, the site will be deleted from the NPL. Officially speaking, deletion from the NPL occurs when the EPA finds that "no further response is required to protect human health or the environment." Remember however that this does not mean all the contaminants at the site have been cleaned up. Some contaminants left over after the cleanup process pose a negligible risk to humans when present in minute quantities. This means that even if you are exposed to the residual toxins, they shouldn't theoretically be harmful. However, other chemicals can be toxic to humans (and other creatures) even when present in extremely small concentrations. Moreover, scientific controversy exists as to the safe levels of many pollutants. So while a site that has been deleted from the NPL is safer than an active site, the threat it poses will probably never be completely eliminated because some of the toxic contaminants will always remain.

Also be aware that once pollution has gotten into the ground and surface water it can be quite difficult to remove. While the EPA makes every effort to remove pollutants from the groundwater, it's difficult to get them all. Flowing groundwater can also cause pollutants to affect areas well outside of the actual Superfund site boundary. This is why the state recommends that people using well water get water quality tests done frequently. If a municipal (city) water supply well is located too close to a contamination site it too may be affected, though public water supplies are tested for contaminants frequently to protect consumers. Finally, animals can sometimes bioaccumulate (and distribute) the toxins present at a Superfund site when they eat contaminated plants and animals which are lower on the food chain.

A brief note on liability

People or businesses who purchase the contaminated parcel where the operations which caused the pollution to take place almost always become financially and legally responsible for the site's cleanup. So if you buy an old industrial plant and the EPA later determines it's contaminated, there's a huge chance you (or your business) will be legally responsible and end up footing the bill for its clean up. If you were foolish enough (and able) to purchase a facility that is currently designated as a Superfund site, you would end up paying for the cleanup in that case too. It's not uncommon for cleanup to cost millions of dollars so due diligence is a must for people purchasing areas that might be contaminated with toxic waste. Fortunately, this strict liability has not been extended to homeowners who unwittingly buy into areas plagued by pollution. In other words, if you buy a house which sits on top of a polluted aquifer, there is very little chance you'll be held liable for the cleanup. The primary concern for most homebuyers near these sites is not liability, but the health problems which might develop due to exposure to the chemicals onsite.

Interpreting the data

You will notice that each of the Superfund points has a "Status". The status can be one of a number of values:

1. Proposed - These are sites that have been proposed to be listed on the National Priority List. Sites with a proposed status are identified by the EPA, concerned citizens or state/local governments due to contamination by (potentially) hazardous substances. Once identified, the EPA will determine whether or not the site poses a risk to human health or the environment. If the EPA finds that the site does not pose a risk to people or the environment it will be removed (see number 2, below); on the other hand if the agency finds that it actually does pose enough of a risk, the site will be finalized (number 3, below).

2. Removed - These are sites that have been removed from the National Priority List because the EPA has determined that they do not pose a real threat to human health or the environment.

3. Final - These are sites which the EPA has determined do pose a threat to human health or the environment after completion of the Hazard Ranking System analysis. As such, they are considered hazardous and are subject to active remediation/cleanup efforts.

4. Deleted - Sites with a "deleted" status are those that the EPA has determined require no further remediation response to protect human health or the environment because cleanup goals have been met.

Remember that this is not a complete inventory of the hazardous waste sites in Florida. We should also point out that as you might expect, there is a lag time between when the EPA begins investigating a site, when it gets added to the NPL and when the site gets added to our maps. The Superfund designation process does not move that quickly, so the lag can be up to a few years. In other words, just because an old industrial site near your potential house is not shown, does not necessarily mean that it is clean. The EPA could have begun investigating the site last week; a site that's not even on the radar now could be designated as a Superfund site two years from now as well - a lack of sites around your home does not necessarily mean that the area isn't polluted.

Also remember that as hinted at above, what is displayed is contamination sites that the EPA knows about. People illegally dispose of things all the time; and in rare cases the wastes that they dump are hazardous and toxic. Since this activity is illegal (and the guys who do it don't hold permits) it's always possible that potential Superfund sites exist that are not shown on this map. So keep in mind that seeing an area devoid of Superfund sites does not mean your potential residence is free and clear pollution and its associated health hazards. And of course, pollution can get into the environment around your home in a variety of ways besides being released from a Superfund site. Therefore, seeing that your area is not home to any Superfund sites is great, but it does not necessarily mean that your potential residence is free from chemical contamination.

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