Superfund process: Super slow?

Williston site in early stages

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

When representatives of federal agencies visited Williston in September 2005 to discuss the Commerce Street Plume Superfund site, local residents might have reasonably expected more information in the following 12 months.

Representatives of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said they expected to release their public health assessment the following spring. The federal report would summarize if the Superfund site exposes people to potentially harmful hazardous substances. (A Vermont state official said last week there is no immediate risk to human health at the site.)

Also at that time, an Environmental Protection Agency official said the agency hoped to contact companies or other parties potentially responsible for the hazardous waste site the following spring. The EPA, responsible for administering the national Superfund program, attempts to identify those responsible for certain hazardous waste sites to assist in their cleanup or containment.

Twenty-two months later, neither agency has met those estimated goals, though officials at both say they’re only a few months away from doing so. Those same officials said in recent interviews that estimated time lines are necessarily imperfect given unique circumstances at each site.

“No single site has followed every one of those steps the way one would have thought,” said Karen Lumino, EPA New England’s remedial project manager for the Commerce Street Plume.

The site

From 1960 to 1984, liquid waste containing heavy metals and solvents was disposed of off and on into an unlined lagoon and a leach field at 96 Commerce St., just south of U.S. Route 2.

Mitec Systems Corp. discharged waste from electronic and microwave components manufactured on the site, which they leased from 1979 to 1986, according to the EPA Web site. The State of Vermont found the company responsible for violating hazardous waste regulations after a Mitec employee reported the discharge practices to the state in 1982.

In April, 2005, the site was added to the National Priorities List, identifying hazardous waste sites the EPA believes require additional investigation and potential cleanup or containment.

As recently as 2002, state monitoring found elevated levels of 13 metals and 11 volatile organic compounds, including trichloroethylene (TCE). Elevated levels of TCE consumed in drinking water over many years can cause liver problems or increase the risk of cancer, according to the EPA.

Michael B. Smith, a hydrogeologist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said because the contamination is so far underground – and because they believe it isn’t moving – that people are not at risk, unless they install a well.

Agency responses

Steve Richardson, an environmental health scientist with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, acknowledged the draft of the public health assessment has taken longer than he expected.

Last summer, the agency sent some residents and media representatives a summary of the site and the agency’s responsibilities there.

“The public health assessment for the Commerce Street Plume site will be ready for public review and comment by the fall of 2006,” the flyer reads.

Last fall, Richardson said by phone the report would be ready by late November or December. At the end of last year, he said he expected it would be complete by the spring. This month, he said he is “shooting for” the end of September.

Richardson said two things have prevented the agency responding more quickly.

“Some other sites I’ve been working on took priority because of high-profile issues,” he said. Some of those sites have urgent public health hazards, unlike the Williston site, he said.

Electronic data passed along by the state also has slowed the agency’s work, Richardson said.

“It’s not a well-organized thing,” Richardson said of the more than 10,000 pages of electronic documents he received. “It’s pretty time consuming to get through all that and sort through and get the data.”

EPA’s Lumino said her agency expects to notify this summer the parties potentially responsible for the Williston hazardous waste site.

“A unique set of circumstances about this site have caused us to need to take additional time during this phase,” she said. “Every site is unique…. It’s very hard once you get in there and start doing the work to predict how much time (a step will take).”

Once the parties are notified, they have the opportunity to present evidence contradicting the EPA’s findings. Then the EPA works with those parties to develop a plan for cleanup or containment for which the parties should pay.

The national picture

A report released this spring by a national nonprofit news organization alleges the Superfund initiative nationally has lost momentum and funding. EPA officials concede inflation has eroded the power of their consistent budget, but disagree that the agency has any less commitment to cleanup work and recovering the cost of that work from polluters.

The Center for Public Integrity, which identifies itself as a non-partisan and non-advocacy organization committed to investigative journalism in the public interest, has over the last two months released portions of a report titled “Wasting away: Superfund’s toxic legacy.” The investigation, according to the report, was based on data obtained from the EPA through more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews with dozens of experts in and out of the agency.

The Center’s investigation found that the startup rate of cleanup work in the last six years is only one-third as high as the previous six years. The number of sites reaching what the EPA calls “construction complete” in the last six years was roughly half that of the previous six years, the report said.

Betsy Southerland, the Superfund program’s director of assessment and remediation division at the EPA, said when the Superfund program started in 1983, no other federal or state agencies were authorized to do cleanup work, so even simple projects went through the Superfund process. Now, states no longer have to refer to Superfund if they have voluntary cleanup programs, she said.

“So what’s happening in recent times is very large, very complex, very expensive sites are the only ones coming to Superfund for cleanup,” Southerland said.

Looking ahead

Dave Deegan, a spokesperson for the EPA New England regional office, said that Superfund “definitely is a long, slow process.”

“We well understand that communities want to see something get done, finalized, stop having to worry about it, even if it’s something as simple as paying attention to the work that is done,” he said. “We try to do the work publicly and transparently so that people can follow it.”