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What’s being done to clean up the toxic environmental mess festering in your coverage area?

What’s being done to clean up the toxic environmental mess festering in your coverage area?

Picture of William Heisel
The toxic Berkeley Pit, shown here with the city of Butte in the background, is part of the largest Superfund site in the United
The toxic Berkeley Pit, shown here with the city of Butte in the background, is part of the largest Superfund site in the United States.
(Photo by Janie Osborne/Getty Images)

Toxic waste saturates the ground in your neighborhood. Dangerous chemicals waft through the air where your kids go to school. Poison blends without a testable trace into your drinking water.

This is just shy of hyperbole. If you look at a map of toxic sites tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency, you will realize that you likely live not very far from a place that is a hot spot for lead, radiation, asbestos, arsenic, or hundreds of other threats to human health. About one out of every six of us lives just 3 miles from one of them, according to an EPA report.

I visited one of these sites recently. The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, is part of one of the largest open pit mine operations in the history of United States, and it remains an unsolved environmental crisis more than 36 years since it was declared a disaster zone by the government. A report by the EPA describes the pit this way:

The Berkeley Pit is filling with water originating from the surrounding bedrock and alluvial aquifers and also from surface inflows. The water accumulating in the Berkeley Pit is contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and zinc and other hazardous substances in high concentrations, and is highly acidic. This contaminated water in the bedrock aquifer presents a threat to human health and the environment should it be consumed or released, but it is technically infeasible to cleanup the bedrock contamination. 

What was the most surprising thing about my visit to the pit was how little had changed in the more than two decades since I last worked at the Montana Standard, the local newspaper. Back then, there were regular stories in the Standard about efforts to deal with the 3 million gallons of water a day that were flowing into the pit, creating a massive toxic pool that was gradually threatening the city’s underlying groundwater and the very existence of Butte’s citizens. There were stories about efforts to keep birds from landing in the toxic water. And there were stories about the ongoing efforts to continue mining just next door to the Berkeley Pit, ostensibly in a way that would not lead to such dangerous consequences. The company that was supposed to be footing the cleanup? bill, Arco, was in a continuous state of dispute with state and federal regulators. 

All those things remain true today. In fact, just a few years ago, thousands of migrating snow geese died after landing in the pit. The only real difference is that some of the water is now being pumped out, by the same company that is mining copper next door. The long-term efficacy of this strategy remains unknown.

The threats these Superfund sites pose are real and have been studied extensively. As Gwendolyn Craig at the Post Star in Glens Falls, New York reported about a recent study:

Children living in the same ZIP code of a fuel-powered plant and a Superfund site are more likely to be hospitalized for things like asthma, pneumonia and other respiratory infections, according to a study done in New York using hospital data from 1993-2008.

Previously, the cleanup of Superfund sites was paid for by the companies who bore the brunt of the responsibility for the waste sites and through taxes on chemicals that tend to leave behind pollution. This money went into the Superfund, established in 1980. In the 1990s, though, Congress let lapse those chemical taxes that funded the Superfund. So the burden shifted to everyone else. 

Bryan Anderson, part of the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, wrote a comprehensive piece on the shifting burden of costs in 2017 that said:

Over the past 20 years, American taxpayers have spent more than $21 billion in cleanup and oversight costs for properties polluted by dangerous wastes, known as Superfund sites, while hundreds of companies responsible for contaminating water paid little to nothing, an analysis of congressional budget data shows.

So, not only should the people who are directly threatened by the toxic waste sites care about what’s happening there, so should everyone else. Because we’re all paying for it — billions have been spent over the years. 

And that brings me to the three main questions I think reporters would be smart to dig into:

1) What was supposed to happen with all this waste? This in itself could be a small reporting project. Some of these waste sites date back to the 1800s. The EPA and state environmental agencies have archived pages and pages of documents — many of them digitized thankfully — that document the extent of the waste and discuss the initial plans for dealing with it. It’s important to note that our understanding of the environmental and health threats posed by such waste has evolved over time. A good starting point is the EPA’s database of site profiles for each Superfund area. Here’s the one for the Berkeley Pit

2) What has actually happened with the waste? If there were promises made, find out if they were kept. If there was a timeline for action, find out if it was followed. And if nothing was done at all – as you will find in hundreds of cases spanning decades — that’s a story worth reporting, too. Check out this map of the Superfund National Priorities List sites, all 1,865 of them mapped from coast to coast. See all those yellow diamonds? Those are sites that were listed as Superfund sites at some point since 1980 and are still unresolved messes. The three sites listed around Butte were all listed in the 1980s. Not a single site in the state of Montana shows as being completed, and there is one site that was proposed to be added to the list six years ago and remains in limbo. That kind of slow walk by industry and regulators can be a story, too.

3) How much has it all cost? This should be simple math. Ask the state agencies involved in the Superfund cleanup and the EPA for a site-specific, year-by-year accounting of how much money has been spent. This should include not only the cleanup and monitoring of the site but also all the administrative and legal work involved. And don’t forget the cost overruns. If you dig a tunnel for cars to travel through — as Seattle has done over the past few years — there is a cost that is quoted when the project is pitched to the community and an actual cost at the end, which is always higher. Earlier this year the Tri-City Herald in Eastern Washington wrote about cost jumps in the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford nuclear facility:

The expected cost to finish cleaning up the Hanford nuclear reservation has tripled in three years, and that’s under the best-case scenario, according to a Department of Energy report released Friday. The report put remaining cleanup costs at $323.2 billion at best. At worst it could be $677 billion. The cost estimates were included in the first Hanford Lifecycle Scope, Schedule and Cost Report to be released in three years. In the last report in 2016 the estimate was $107.7 billion.

Back in 1989, when the cleanup began, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it would spend $2.8 billion over five years on the cleanup. Talk about the underestimate of the century. So what has been spent since then? That dollar figure would be nearly as scary as the nuclear waste itself. 

The broader goal for reporters is to figure out what has been achieved by nearly 40 years of the Superfund law. Are we safer? Are we healthier? Or do we just have a lot more paperwork and a lot of toxic holes in the ground?

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