“Superfund ‘Timebombs’ Threaten to Explode”

Washington (GGM) Analysis | January 29, 2020 by Attorney Michael Wells, PodcastLegal Fact and Fiction

All organic life requires air, water, a place to exist, and a food source. But all of these things must be clean or there cannot be life, at least not long term. Throughout the United States, thousands of ticking environmental “timebombs” called Superfund sites are ready to explode. The poisons and other pollutants contained in these sites threaten all organic life in the United States and throughout the Earth. 

Heart of the Matter. Superfund sites number about 4,000 and were created by federal legislation in 1980. Congress set up a trust fund to finance the cleanup of these hazardous sites; the fund used to be financed by a tax on petroleum, but Congress let the tax expire twenty-five years ago. The sites are deemed so contaminated that they require long term responses to clean up these messes. And they are not self-contained. Hurricanes, floods, rising sea levels, increased precipitation, and wildfires spread their pollution, and they pose serious problems to 945 sites according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study from 2019. 

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How does this impact you personally? The Trump administration ignored many of these sites and cut funding for the continued cleanup, which caused the sites to further deteriorate. Incoming Biden Administration Climate Change Czar Gina McCarthy certainly has her work cut out for her.

Everyone should care about Superfund sites. On July 19, 2018, in Libby, California, a wildfire broke out and burned an asbestos site, which could have released millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the groundwater and air if the fire had not been contained. It served as a cautionary tale, and it emphasizes the risk posed by Superfund sites that run along the West Coast, Gulf Coast, and East Coast. All of these sites are vulnerable to floods, wildfires, hurricanes, rising sea levels, and other climate change associated risks. And the risks will only increase with climate change. 

What can you do about this? The sites differ in their severity as well as the types of pollution, but people can do one key thing to improve the environment: plant trees. Although trees are vulnerable to pollution and are often destroyed by the toxins in the Superfund sites, trees are also part of the solution because they can help expel many of the harmful pollutants by producing healthier byproducts. In 2017, one study showed using bioaugmentation (certain kinds of bacteria) protected poplar trees and allowed them to suck up polluted groundwater and expel it in the form of healthier byproducts.

 In other words, the trees cleaned up the site more cheaply and in a more beneficial way for the environment.

Next Steps

These are complex problems, but there are things we can all do to make it better:

  • Recognize that this is a problem that affects everyone
  • Plant trees
  • Learn more about solutions such as bioaugmentation
  • Learn about how people pose risks to the environment, and what you can do to minimize both your “carbon footprint” and other risks you pose individually
  • Most importantly, call your Congressperson or Senator and tell them you are terrified about the climate’s impact on the Superfund sites. If enough people call, they will listen

Yes, there are absolutely timebombs out there (just ask the residents of Flynt, Michigan), but this does not mean we must fail to act and do things to improve the situation. If we do not, then the world will be uninhabitable, perhaps in our lifetime, but more than likely in our childrens’ and grandchildrens’ lifetimes. 

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