Environmental neglect from previous generations continues to be a burden in the current day; across the country, certain pieces of land are no longer suitable to be inhabited or developed. These areas have been designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)_ as Superfund Sites, which are defined as “any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/ or the environment.” (TOXMAP) In other words, these pieces of land cannot be bought, sold, or developed further until the toxins and pollutants are cleaned up from that area. This puts an enormous stress on local economies that must deal with the realities of pollution and land contamination.
Started in 1980, the Superfund program was created to address the dangers of uncontrolled hazardous waste dumps. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERLA or Superfund) aimed to finance the emergency response and cleanup of these sites. Through this act, the EPA gained the authority to recognize sites as Superfund.
Interestingly enough, the state with the highest concentration of these Superfund sites is New Jersey, which because of this has previously been called “The Toxic Waste State.” Private companies and government agencies alike have all contributed to the disaster that is present today. This problem stems from the times of the industrial revolution, when factories located in tightly packed areas of NJ were allowed to generate toxic waste with few, if any, environmental regulations. Pete Lopez of the United States EPA is a regional administrator for the agency, and oversees these NJ sites. In regards to what got NJ to its current contamination levels, Lopez says, “We had raw, incredible productivity, (in NJ) but there were no controls. If you want to look for a parallel, just look at where China and India are in our current day: You can see massive pollution, massive degradation and raw economic output without environmental controls in place.” (NJ105) In 1977, citizens caught a glimpse of the dangers that come from leaving contaminated waste untreated. A series of chemical reactions at a large chemical waste treatment facility in Bridgeport, New Jersey caused a massive explosion and fire that left six people dead and thirty five people hospitalized. It was reported that, “the raging fire propelled waste drums through the air and blanketed the city in a funnel of black smoke that reached hundreds of feet into the sky.” (EPA) This is just one of the events that lead to the creation of CERLA. In 1980, more toxic waste burst into flames in Elizabeth, NJ at a storage facility; sending a “thick black plume of smoke and ash over a 15 – mile area and raising fears of widespread chemical contamination.”
This map is found on the EPA’s website and locates Superfund Sites that have been proposed, deleted, or are still active:
According to federal data, New Jersey has “115 active Superfund sites as well as 35 additional sites that have been removed from the program.” (NJ) That is a remarkably high number, considering that New Jersey is the 5th smallest state in the country. When considering that the state has more sites than any other state and consists of just 21 counties, residents and visitors are never far from one of these places when they are in the Garden State. While many of the areas in NJ have been cleaned up, that does not mean the job is done, as sites often require long-term treatment and monitoring. For example, the South Jersey Clothing Company, which existed in the 1970’s, released a common toxic chemical associated with dry cleaning processes, trichloroethylene (TCE). This chemical was released into waterways from the company, and also, it is believed that a fire in the 1970’s “may also have released nearly 300 gallons of TCE into the ground.” (NJ) The EPA says that the contaminated soil has been cleaned up, but they emphasize that groundwater treatment and monitoring are still “ongoing.”
It is clear that superfund sites remain a problem for the state of New Jersey, and there are so many sites that will require further cleanup in the future. However, by using maps like the one provided by the EPA, it becomes easier to understand where these Superfund sites are located and how to manage these areas to hopefully avoid any exacerbation of Superfund sites.
Written by: Sean Halpin