The term “Superfund site” likely conjures images of a dead, gray landscape and dry, cracked earth, bisected by a creek bed oozing a mysterious slime.
But, while it’s true that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program identifies some of the nation's most contaminated sites, it’s not necessarily the case that the sites languish unattended into perpetuity. In fact, once a site is actually declared a Superfund site, it becomes eligible for a variety of federally-funded clean-up efforts.
The Superfund program was created by Congress in 1980 to address dangerous or abandoned hazardous waste sites and has been administered and overseen by the EPA for 35 years. Since its establishment, around 1,700 areas in the U.S. have been designated Superfund sites. The program provides funds for emergency response efforts, data collection, addressing liability issues as well as site clean-up.
However, the EPA found that many Superfund sites - as if branded with a scarlet letter - were being left unused despite being declared safe. So, in 1999, the EPA set up a Superfund Redevelopment Initiative (SRI) to help communities access funds and resources to enable redevelopment and reuse of Superfund sites. Since then the program has helped revitalize thousands of acres of land at more than 500 locations, turning unused, formerly contaminated land into playing fields, residential areas, office parks and other developments.
But, the process of getting there is often a long and winding road. A handful of experts from the EPA, a Virginia-based environmental consulting agency and several towns that have benefited from the SRI came together at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference held recently in Portland to discuss the implementation of new tools and strategies - including community health and wellness assessments and cultural competency training events - in order to help the SRI better tailor its programs to the needs of some challenged communities.
Many communities surrounding Superfund sites are disproportionately populated by minority African American and Latino populations. Further, according to the EPA, “[C]ommunities of color and low-income communities are also more likely to experience disparities in health outcomes and costs. Disparities have been documented for many serious health conditions, including infant mortality, low birth weight births, asthma, cancer and cardiovascular disease; many of these conditions are known to be influenced by environmental pollutants.”
As a result, the EPA has recognized that, “While fulfilling the core mission of protecting human health and the environment, the Superfund program is often engaged with communities that are experiencing cumulative environmental and health impacts that can be beyond the scope of cleaning up a single Superfund site.”
In light of such conclusions, the EPA has started focusing in some communities on collecting data on disparities and soliciting feedback from residents on their specific desires for how to reuse a site, with an emphasis on building partnerships between residents and local, state and federal government efforts.
One community that has made particular inroads in this regard is Jacksonville, Fla. Bill Denman, SRI coordinator for EPA Region 4, which encompasses eight southeastern states, including Florida, said the SRI program adapted its Superfund site reuse process in order to help meet health and wellness needs identified by residents.
“It was a food desert, there was a lack of green space … increased diabetes,” explained Denman. “And so what we decided was ... the community is so integrated and large we need to help build capacity and we need to understand all the issues they’re dealing with. ...There were larger issues in the community that, until we understood those, it was going to be difficult to meaningfully work in the community.”
The neighborhood in question is in the vicinity of several Superfund sites, an area referred to as Health Zone 1. The area includes one site where a wood treating operation had contaminated soils in the vicinity, and it was around the issue of the reuse of this particular site that the EPA conducted a case study of how to assess the need for community health and wellness resources to be incorporated on the site. The process convened dozens of residents, community development corporations, elected officials and municipal staff to define priorities for the site and moved on to assess the assets and gaps in health and wellness services in the community.
The 2014 study, called “A Pilot Framework for Integrating Community Health and Wellness Into the Superfund Reuse Assessment Process,” serves as a guide for communities with similar challenges.
Different communities have different needs, and the EPA has recognized the need to adapt to unique circumstances and histories. This was true in the case of Freeport, Ill., which has a history of racial segregation. In this case, the EPA worked with contractor Skeo Solutions and other partners to address some of the tensions and disparities in the community, which had been affected by repeated flooding as well as illegal dumping in an area that has been designated a Superfund site.
Melissa Friedland, the EPA’s Superfund program manager for redevelopment, explained via email that the approach in Freeport included the use of a “Building Cultural Competence” training - developed by Skeo Solutions - to encourage understanding and respect between the community and local government.
“We find that unless and until you attempt to unpack that history, mistrust and antipathy, it will be very hard to tackle environmental clean-up and successfully plan for the productive reuse of these formerly contaminated sites,” Friedland said. “Persistent flooding has undermined the housing stock and value, economic stability and viability of this community. Skeo trained community residents and local government leaders to present their case ... requesting changes to the flood zone regulations such that they don't continue to have a disproportionate environmental and economic impact on this population.”
Funding for new SRI strategies such as those used in Jacksonville and Freeport is somewhat unpredictable, Friedland said. Rather, the focus is moreso on making suitable connections between the community and appropriate resources and capacity-building. However, she explained that there is a certain amount of “seed funding” that can help launch reuse projects.
“How much money per year varies,” Friedland said. “It depends on EPA’s budget, whether there are appropriate projects, and more. We would love to support at least one project in each region each year, but that’s not a goal nor is it always the best use of government money.”
There is not a cookie-cutter approach to Superfund site clean-up, unfortunately. “[T]he SRI process is not a one-size-fits all tool,” Friedland said. “Different communities need different things, and how the process unfolds varies, although the EPA staff in the region are the ones who bring it to our attention and … it must be an acceptable part of the cleanup process. …EPA is a stakeholder when working with communities to understand the future use of a site. It plays an important role in helping us plan cleanups, and us sharing information with communities is an important part of them having the information they need to make decisions.”