Superfund

Superfund is a federal legislative program which enables the Environmental Protection Agency to remediate the nation’s most severe contamination sites. Superfund began in the early 1980’s in response to catastrophes like the Valley of Drums and Love Canal.

Valley of Drums circa 1980. Photo: EPA via Wikimedia Foundation

The government needed a legal and budgetary framework with which to address these imminently dangerous contamination sites as well as the authority to pursue financial reparations from those responsible. Sites placed on the National Priorities List are first in line to get EPA funding for cleanup and remediation.

There are currently 1,321 sites on the National Priorities List (NPL), with another 47 proposed additions. 386 sites have been deleted from the NPL after remediation work has been substantially completed and no longer pose a threat as assessed by the EPA. Approximately 70% of projects are paid for by parties which were responsible for the original contamination. When the EPA cannot locate such a party or if they are unable to pay, Congress must appropriate funding. To me, it seems inappropriate that Congress must appropriate funds for specific projects rather than simply giving the EPA the budget it needs to perform its mission. Unfortunately, many of our politicians and the constituents they represent do not believe that toxic waste remediation should be a financial priority for our country. Requiring congressional approval for individual cleanup sites wastes valuable time and carries the risk that Congress will vote down the proposal.

The EPA is a federal agency. By nature, it is a bureaucracy bogged down by politics and red tape. Although it does a significant amount of good work, many sites in need of serious remediation work are not severe enough to make the cut. It’s also very likely that our government’s political machinations and sinister corporate ties have prevented deserving sites from making the list. There are also undoubtedly many sites with serious contamination which is not yet detected— the longer it takes to find such places, it becomes less likely that a financially responsible party can be located for cleanup.

For my final project, I plan to visit and photograph various Superfund sites. I will look at various types of sites with different types of contamination. I hope to emphasize the fact that many of these sites are not visible, and many are still active workplaces or public spaces. I want to compel the viewer to investigate polluted sites in their own community and encourage citizens to demand accountability.

I’m not the first to come up with this project idea. Similar projects have been undertaken by Brooke Singer and Fritz Hoffman/National Geographic. While they are impressive, they are not exhaustive. There’s a lot more to be said.

Fritz Hoffman/NatGeo: Hanford Superfund Site (radioactive contamination)
Brooke Singer: Hunter’s Point, San Francisco Superfund Site

Possible sites to visit and photograph:

Revere Chemical, Bucks County PA. Cleanup completed. In the area where I grew up. Associated with nearby Superfund sites Boarhead Farms and DeRewalt Chemical Co. I will likely focus on these three sites as they have a fairly interesting story.

CHEMFAB, Doylestown PA. About 15 minutes from my house.

Butler Mine Tunnel, Pittston PA. Chemical waste was dumped into abandoned underground mine which then leaked into the river.

Kin-Buc Landfill in Edison NJ. Giant (220 acres) contamination site.

There are many more possibilities in the PA/NY/NJ/MD/WV area (my stomping ground). I plan to explore and photograph at least two of them during Spring Break. I have not yet decided on the final form of my project, but it will likely be a simple set of photos with accompanying narrative.