Superfund Megasites

Almost three decades after Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) to clean up the nation's most dangerous hazardous waste dumps, the nation still has a long list of "Superfund megasites"—places that are so polluted with chemicals and toxins that experts expect they will cost more than $50 million each to clean up. As of 2007, 154 locations had been named megasites, and the list continues to grow as more mines, landfills, and factories qualify. One of these sites is in southern California, off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where a large deposit of the pesticide DDT on the ocean floor has been poisoning fish and other marine life for decades. Another megasite in Butte, Montana, is a 900-foot-deep (274m), open-air pit of toxic waste left over from an old copper mine; the pit is so huge that it has become a tourist attraction. Polluters pay for most Superfund cleanups, but cleanups of megasites have become increasingly more expensive, often as much as $140 million or more for each site. Yet Superfund's annual budget has remained at about $1.2 billion since the program began, making big cleanups ever harder to finance.

Since the passage of the Superfund law, hundreds of hazardous waste sites have been cleaned up, but many others are still awaiting decontamination. During the initial period following CERCLAs passage, the EPA first conducted thirty-three hundred emergency removals—urgent cleanups of hazardous wastes because of the immediate hazard they presented to public health or the environment. In 1993 the EPA inventoried about 38,000 remaining sites, selecting from these a list of the most dangerous sites, officially placing them on the Superfund National Priorities List. As of 2008 this list consisted of 1,317 sites.

Hazardous waste sites are cleaned using a variety of physical, chemical, or biological methods. A few types of wastes can be treated simply by diluting them with water. Others react positively to chemicals; for example, the chemical sodium hydroxide has been used to treat acid wastes. Infectious medical wastes are typically incinerated. Liquid hazardous wastes are sometimes solidified by mixing them with other materials, so that they harden and no longer pose a risk for underground water systems. Yet another method is building a physical barrier around waste matter; this barrier might be made of plastic, steel, concrete, clay, or glass. The most difficult type of hazardous waste to remedy is gaseous

An EPA Quanta Resources Superfund Site sign is posted in a hazardous vacant lot. Government funds, known as "Superfund," pay for the cleanup of hazardous sites that are eligible.

An EPA Quanta Resources Superfund Site sign is posted in a hazardous vacant lot. Government funds, known as "Superfund," pay for the cleanup of hazardous sites that are eligible.

plumes that are emitted from some hazardous waste dumps. Sometimes, these plumes can be confined by drilling wells around the area and injecting them with water to block the escape of hazardous gases. In the case of chlorinated solvent gases, the area can be surrounded with a trench that contains powdered iron, which can react with the hazardous gases and turn them into less hazardous hydrocarbons.

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