You crack open the Sunday paper to find a new place to live and come across an incredible deal -- a spacious and surprisingly affordable apartment. Jumping at the opportunity, you rush to the leasing office to scope out the property. Everything seems perfect, and you're just about to sign the lease when you notice a clause stating that the apartment complex sits on land that used to be a toxic waste dump. Even though you're told the land is perfectly safe now, you have serious reservations about making this apartment complex your home.
The thought of living, working or being anywhere near an ex-toxic waste dump understandably worries many people, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to quell those concerns. In 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) gave the EPA authority to find ways to fund and implement cleanups of areas contaminated with toxic waste. These areas are known as Superfund sites.
But after years of successful cleanups of hundreds of sites, much of the newly safe land sat unused, which damaged property values and the communities' economies. That's why, in 1999, the EPA formed an initiative to clean up these Superfund sites and make sure they are productively reused. This Superfund Redevelopment Initiative (SRI) works with communities to accomplish two goals:
- To decide on a specific use for the land before the actual cleanup of the Superfund site begins. That way cleanup is geared toward the purpose for the land.
- To take Superfund sites that have already been cleaned up and put them to good use
These are both difficult tasks given the overwhelming misconceptions about Superfund sites. Are companies that produced the toxic waste expected to pay for redevelopment? And, if so, are they happy about it? Learn more about the Superfund Redevelopment process on the next page.
How Superfund Redevelopment Works
Whether it's a contaminated or already decontaminated site, the process of Superfund Redevelopment can be complicated, frustrating and slow. Nevertheless, the communities' economies will continue to suffer if the land does not return to use. Let's take a look at the factors involved in the overall Superfund program:
- Investigation of the site: When a community discovers that a piece of land contains toxic waste, it reports that discovery to the EPA. The EPA places the site on what's known as the National Priorities List, and investigations and soil tests follow to reveal details about the degree, kind and source of the contamination.
- Funding the cleanup: The investigation gives the EPA clues as to which manufacturing companies could be Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs). The EPA uses its federally bestowed power to require PRPs to pay for these specific cleanups. However, this often leads to liability arguments that make their way to court.
- Planning reuse: Deciding exactly how the site will be used is important because, although cleanups make the sites safe, not all cleaned sites are clean enough for all uses. For example, the land may require digging restrictions, or it may be unsuitable for residential development. Investigations offer clues as to the potential scope of healthy reuse options. Depending on the preferences of the community and the post-cleanup safety, sites can provide land for stores, sports fields, wildlife reserves and industrial buildings, among other things.
- Working together: The EPA must work in conjunction with a variety of parties to help the process run smoothly -- usually local organizations such as governments and potential developers. Disagreements among different organizations may cause headaches.
- Cleanup: Not all cleanups are alike, and various methods may be used to make the land safe for reuse. Methods include: temporarily removing the soil for treatment, permanently removing the soil for safe disposal, recycling toxic material for other uses after treatment, employing microorganisms or plants to naturally stabilize the waste, or merely leaving the toxic waste there and safely covering it up.
- Overcoming the public's misconceptions: When a community discovers toxic waste, the local media throws a spotlight on the problem. After years in the limelight, the site gains a certain stigma, and people remain hesitant to use the land even after it's safe again. Therefore, the EPA faces the difficult task of informing and convincing the public that the land is now safe. They also have to sell the same idea to potential developers, in hopes they'll build on the land. So it's a long-term process.
One obstacle with Superfund Redevelopment is that prospective developers fear cleanup liability. Developers that are interested in purchasing the land worry they'll be held responsible for cleanup costs. Now, these developers can qualify for status under law as a bona fide prospective purchaser. This status protects the developers and prevents them from having to pay for the decontamination of land that was toxic before they purchased it.
To learn more about the EPA and related subjects, explore the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Reusing Superfund Sites." Environmental Protection Agency. Oct. 2006. (April 25, 2008) http://www.epa.gov/superfund/programs/recycle/pdf/reusingsites.pdf
- "Superfund Redevelopment." Environmental Protection Agency. Feb. 8th, 2008. (April 25, 2008) http://www.epa.gov/superfund/programs/recycle/info/index.html
- Skrzcki, Cindy. "Model Planes May Sour At Former Superfund Sites." The Washington Post. April 5, 2005.
- Stroup, Richard L., Bradley Townsend. "EPA's New Superfund Rule: Making the Problem Worse." Regulation: The Cato Review of Business & Government, 1993. (April 25, 2008). http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/reg16n3f.html