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Environmental Protection & Preservation

A Beginner's Guide to Superfund Cleanup

If you've recently started researching the terms "Superfund site" or "Superfund cleanup" you'll be inundated with scientific and governmental tomes heavy with incomprehensible jargon. If you have a Superfund site near you, you may eventually want to understand all the scientific mumbo-jumbo.

Until then, we've got a beginner's guide to help you understand the basics.

What is a Superfund Site?

When a site is discovered - by a citizen, state agency, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) office or other party - to have hazardous substances, that site is added to a database called CERCLIS. CERCLIS stands for Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System. Once added to the system, the site is assessed for hazards.

What is the Cleanup Process?

The process starts with an investigation of the site to determine the extent of the cleanup needed and to identify any immediate or short-term actions required. When no short-term actions are required, the EPA looks for the source of the hazardous materials to identify responsible parties. It can take years or decades to identify the source of the problem and hold them accountable financially for clean-up efforts. When immediate action is required, the EPA pays for the remediation up front and works later to identify the responsible parties and hold them accountable.

Superfund sites are often hotbeds of political and corporate intrigue. Corporations rarely want to pay for remediation and wage war in courtrooms and public forums. Politicians often latch onto Superfund sites to further their careers or legacies. To prevent conflicts of interest when a corporation is responsible for the damage to a site, a contractor like Sevenson Environmental Services is usually brought in to perform all remediation work and provide accurate, unbiased reports on the site.

Important Terms and Definitions

  • PA/SI: Preliminary Assessment/Site Inspection - This is the initial discovery on a site that indicates how much hazardous material is present and whether any immediate action is necessary.
  • NPL: National Priorities List - A list of the most seriously hazardous Superfund sites slated for long-term clean up.
  • RI/FS: Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study - This in-depth investigation is used to discover the type(s) and extent of contamination. This is also when potential treatment technologies (and their estimated costs) are assessed.
  • ROD: Records of Decision - A record of the cleanup methods that are scheduled to be used on a site.
  • RD/RA: Remedial Design/Remedial Action - This phase is where the bulk of the work happens. A very specific plan for site remediation is formulated and implemented.
  • Construction Completion - Indicates the end of the physical clean-up effort. This DOES NOT guarantee that the site has reached final cleanup levels or is deemed safe.
  • Post Construction Completion - The long-term protection and maintenance phase for a Superfund site includes long-term actions and five-year reviews.
  • NPL Delete - When all processes are complete on a site and all cleanup goals have been achieved, the site is then removed from the NPL and considered safe to use.
  • Reuse - Site reuse and redevelopment is generally explored before cleanup to optimize clean-up efforts.
Every Superfund site is different based on the hazardous materials present, plans for reuse and how drastic the fight is to assign accountability. Hopefully, you've come away with a basic understanding of the nature of Superfund sites and are ready to learn more about what's happening in your neighborhood.

Written by Ling Xiao. The daughter of farmers in China, Ling can appreciate a world where technology can merge with nature to connect communities of people. She is working with a startup to create a site that connects farmers with distributors and chefs worldwide.

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