Rep. Eshoo Demands Answers about Superfund Clean-Up

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) wants federal regulators to re-think the way they clean up some of the most toxic waste sites in the nation, including in Silicon Valley.

Rep. Eshoo asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to look into shortfalls in its Superfund program, a federal effort to absolve some of the most polluted real estate in the U.S. Her inquiry came after reading a study by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), which found that cleaning up Superfund sites actually wreaks more environmental damage than it mitigates.

In Mountain View, one of 1,300 Superfund sites in the nation pegged by the EPA for ongoing remediation, pipes siphon up thousands of gallons an hour of toxic groundwater. They filter out the deadly chemicals to make it drinkable for people who live in Santa Clara Valley. The chemical leftovers then get transported to plants in other states to get treated and burned, leaving behind a trail of cancer-causing pollution in far-flung towns and Native American reservations.

“It’s a shell game in which one environmental danger appears to be addressed, yet is moved somewhere else in the form of a new problem,” CIR journalists Matt Drange and Susanne Rust wrote in their March story.

Eshoo, who sits on the congressional Energy and Commerce Committee, wants to know more about the extent to which the EPA tracks the transport and treatment of hazardous waste from Superfund sites. She also wants the agency to report back about alternative cleanup methods.

Silicon Valley is home to 21 Superfund sites, including nine in Eshoo’s 18th Congressional District. The post-WWII industry that eventually evolved into Silicon Valley left behind toxins that contaminate the region’s groundwater to this day. Computer chip manufacturers would degrease chips with benzene and trichloroethylene (TCE), carcinogens that seeped underground and into the water. Intel Corp. and Fairchild Semiconductor Corp. still pay for cleanup at the Mountain View site, which lies near Google offices.

In her letter sent last week to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Eshoo questioned the effectiveness of the Superfund program if it creates so much more pollution than it cleans up.

“I’m a strong supporter of the Superfund law and of holding accountable those who pollute our communities with highly toxic chemicals,” she wrote. “Superfund is a core environmental statute and has been undoubtedly successful at cleaning up toxic waste sites. However, what I’m concerned about is that the EPA is failing to properly monitor and regulate the emissions associated with remediating the toxic pollutants recovered from Superfund sites, as reported … [by] the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Of particular concern, she adds, is that superheating used to free up toxins for extraction creates a dangerous side effect: a chemical called dioxin, one of the EPA’s “Dirty Dozen” cancer-causing compounds. The transporting and treating of Superfund waste also creates climate-changing carbon emissions.

“I also understand that in some cases the traditional ‘pump and treat’ method for de-contaminating groundwater may not be as effective as alternative treatment methods,” Eshoo writes.

Eshoo’s March 28 letter asked the EPA to return with answers to the following questions:

1. Does the EPA monitor the carbon dioxide emissions generated in the interstate transportation and treatment of hazardous waste or dioxin emissions from carbon regeneration facilities? To what extent does EPA monitoring or regulations of these emissions protect human health and the environment?

2. Has the EPA investigated scientifically and financially feasible alternatives to the current methods being used to treat hazardous waste sites, in particular contaminated groundwater? If not, does the EPA plan to investigate such alternatives?

3. Does the EPA have sufficient regulatory authority to monitor and control toxic pollutants generated after removal from the Superfund site? Or is congressional action necessary to grant additional authority?

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


    • I read the report from the CIR and it is appalling but not at all surprising. The Superfund may well have done more environmental harm than good over the course of it’s existence.
      The EPA is a gigantic government bureaucracy. As such it’s main focus is now on it’s own growth and profitability. Actually doing anything to protect the environment is now far down on it’s priority list.

  1. Many years ago I came across a study on Superfund cleanup. At the time there was a lot of blame being tossed back and forth the political aisle – “this side wants more funding, that side was to slash funding.” It turns out – and again this was some years back, that 77% of Superfund $$ went – not for shovels and clean up – but for lawyers!

    I don’t know if the same figures hold true today but someone might look into it. Out of every dollar for cleaning up a site only 25c goes to actually doing anything.

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