superfund sites

Converting Useless Land To Productive Property

For more than a decade, the 160-acre Crazy Horse Sanitary Landfill was a repository of some pretty icky stuff. So much rubber, oil and solvents were dumped on the property five miles outside Salinas that it was declared a Superfund site and closed to the public in 2009.

More than 500 miles to the southeast is the infamous Stringfellow landfill in Riverside County, where 34 million gallons of acid, solvent, heavy metal and pesticide-manufacturing byproducts were dumped over 17 acres from 1956 to 1972. In 1983, it achieved the dubious distinction of California's most serious hazardous waste site, and today contains not one, not two but three groundwater extraction and treatment systems operated by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

It's too bad those properties are so polluted that they can't be put to good use. Or can they? In an intriguing study, the federal government is assessing the possibility of developing renewable-energy sources, including wind and solar power, on those sites and 24 others. A total of five contaminated or potentially contaminated sites totaling almost 29,000 acres in California are being reviewed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy are evaluating Superfund, brownfields, former landfill or mining sites and even former gas stations through the new "Re-Powering America's Land Initiative."

It is hoped that some of the blighted property could be used to generate solar, wind, biomass or geothermal power. "These studies are the first step to transforming these sites from eyesores today to community assets tomorrow," Mathy Stanislaus, an EPA assistant administrator said.

Here's a link to the original press release, and one to a list of sites being studied.

This isn't a new idea. Restoration of brownfields is a serious mission of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has restored sites to commercial use. But using them as power sources is not as common, although a six-megawatt solar array powers the restoration of an Aerojet General Corporation Superfund dump near Sacramento. And in Chicago, the Exelon City Solar facility - built on an abandoned commercial site called a "brownfield" - is the largest urban solar power plant in the United States.

The Superfund toxic landfills are pretty horrible. The environmental protection regulators call them "the most complex, uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites identified by the EPA for cleanup." Brownfields aren't much better: "They are properties at which expansion, redevelopment, or reuse may be complicated by the presence of contaminants."

Double Ick.

But toxic sites can be ideal for clean energy. "They often can leverage existing utility infrastructure, and this redevelopment may be allowed under existing zoning, " federal officials said in a news release.

The former Fort Ord military base in Marina is the largest side being assessed in California. The most remote is 253 acres in tiny Alpine County. The former open-pit sulfur mine is at 7,000 feet elevation on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada.

This really is a great idea. California has one of the most ambitious renewable-power mandates in the nation, and targeting tainted soil that can't be used for anything else toward that effort makes sense.

Video by State Department of Toxic Substances Control

Superfund list grows by seven

Add New York's Newtown Creek, Michigan's Ten Mile Drain and a particularly polluted Florida dry cleaner to the list of national superfund sites.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tossed those and four others onto its National Priorities List, a collection of the country's nastiest real estate that poses a risk to human health and the environment. Not good, but cleanup means work.

The list's newcomers aren't that special. There are currently 1,275 others in the federal program, which investigates and strives to rid sites of pollutants. The EPA said to date 345 sites have been removed from the list.

These aren't your run-of-the-mill backyard meth trailers or even a fuel-saturated aging gas station. These messes are big, complicated and troublesome to remediate.

The ultimate superfund site is the Hanford nuclear reservation in southeast Washington state, a massive piece of tumbleweed-choked desert that hides extensive plumes of underground radioactive and chemical contamination flowing slowly and determinedly toward the nearby banks of the mighty Columbia River. It's ringed by the cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, upriver from the the sprawling metropolis surrounding Portland, Ore.

John Stang, a reporter I worked with for about seven years at the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick and an expert on Hanford's buried radioactive glop, says even after billions of dollars dumped into its cleanup (a sum that rivals the Alaska state budget each year), it's still got issues.

Lots of them. Here's how Stang describes "The Area," as it is known, in a piece for the "During much of Hanford's Cold War days of producing plutonium, about 450 billions gallons of non-radioactive and slightly radioactive fluids -- about 125 different contaminants --- were dumped directly into the ground." But government-funded teams headed by the best the world has to offer are making progress.

Still, strontium 90 is nothing I'd like to swim around in, or quaff if it got into the Columbia, which supplies drinking water to millions.

The truth is superfund sites are no joke. They're complex, difficult and controversial. But dealing with them is a good thing and an opportunity to provide green jobs. Often, they're not the most glorious. Yet they're important and often highly technical. Ken Strickland, a childhood friend from Anchorage, has done quite well for himself specializing in site cleanup and restoration in Canada. He takes his job as a steward for a cleaner planet seriously.

Here's a rundown on the latest superfund arrivals. They will need people like Strickland.

  • The Black River flows through Jefferson County, N.Y. and empties into Lake Ontario. Industry has dumped its leftovers into its waters since the 1890s and it now boasts two active paper mills, a machine shop, the Carthage/West Carthage sewage treatment plant and a hydroelectric power plant. The EPA says river sediment is contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, dioxins and other chemicals. PCBs are considered probable human carcinogens and are linked to such pleasant things as as low birth weight, thyroid disease and learning, memory and immune system disorders. Cleaning this one won't be simple. Dredging, one of the remedies for relieving waterways of their placer gold deposits, is one way but destroys habitat for generations.
  • Newtown Creek in Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y. offers a fascinating history of the birth of an industrialized nation. Unfortunately it's also one that left its dirty fingers all over the Newtown's banks. The EPA says that by the 1850s, Newtown Creek and the surrounding area had become one of the largest industrial centers in New York City and by 1870 more than 50 refineries ringed its banks. Early last century, Newtown served as one of the key industrial arteries in New York City. Suffice to say that anything nasty in manufacturing has been there and it's highly polluted. Cleanup will certainly not be simple, but recognition of the problem represents a huge step for cleaning up the Big Apple's waterways.
  • General Dynamics Longwood in Longwood, Fla. General covers about 10 acres. The corporation and its predecessors manufactured circuit boards on the property until the 1980s, cleaning them with a vapor degreaser containing trichloroethene. The EPA says the chemical was stored in 55-gallon drums and in an above-ground storage tank on the eastern portion of the property. General Dynamics Corporation occupied the site from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s. Contaminants in ground water include arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and silver.
  • Sanford Dry Cleaners on South Palmetto Avenue in Sanford, Florida would appear the tamest of the bunch. It's made up of two adjoining parcels of about an acre and sits in the historic section of downtown Sanford. But it's been around since the 1940s, and the site is rife with contaminants. EPA says tetrachloroethene, trichloroethene and dichloroethene were found in shallow and deep ground water samples in concentrations above the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act Maximum Contaminant Levels. Not pretty.
  • The 29-acre abandoned Smokey Mountain Smelters facility in Knox County, Tenn. operated from 1922 to 1979 primarily producing agricultural chemicals. The EPA says that in 1979, Smokey Mountain Smelters was established and operated as a secondary aluminum smelter, a process that involved the melting aluminum scrap waste and casting ingots. Currently, the site has arsenic- and PCB-laced soil and groundwater and has massive piles of waste that contain contain extremely corrosive water-soluble salts containing aluminum nitride, sodium and potassium chlorides and heavy metals. Homes are as close as 200 feet away.
  • Ten Mile Drain in St. Clair Shores, Mich. consists of concrete storm sewer pipes and surrounding soil, which are heavily contaminated with PCBs. Those PCBs have migrated into four canals where the storm sewer discharges and in Lake St. Clair. The EPA says a source is not known.
  • Vienna Wells in Vienna, Mo. includes three contaminated public drinking water wells. The EPA says the suspected source of tetrachloroethylene is the former Langenberg Hat Factory, which operated from 1952 until 1996. A decade of monitoring has shown increased contamination in the wells, which provide the main source of drinking water for about 625 people.