Taking Stock Of America's Toxic Sites And The Millions Living Near Them

Nov 30, 2014
Originally published on December 4, 2014 11:12 am

An article in the December issue of National Geographic looks at toxic waste sites in the U.S. and the more than 49 million Americans who live near them. NPR's Eric Westervelt talks with writer Paul Voosen about his piece.

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

In 1978, a man named Jun Apostol moved to a new house just east of Los Angeles - it's location and size just right for his family. The only catch - it was right next to a landfill that contained hazardous waste. Reporter Paul Voosen wrote about him for National Geographic.

PAUL VOOSEN: He came to the development with the promise that the waste site would be closed in a couple years and might even become a golf course. But that's not quite what happened when they found methane intruding into the neighborhood.

WESTERVELT: Voosen says, that dump was listed as a Superfund site, part of the Environmental Protection Agency's long-standing program to enforce cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous materials. Today, some 49 million Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site. I asked Voosen if it ever bothered Jun Apostol to live so close to one.

VOOSEN: Not really. You know, when the winds would come up and the smell would kind of ruin some of his dinner parties (laughter) that was one concern. His wife did develop breast cancer, but he does not blame the site for that. And that's a type of tie that would be very difficult to make. That's one of the kind of uncertainties that always attends Superfund sites.

WESTERVELT: Paul, these sites are everywhere. I mean, another waste site you mentioned was Camp Lejeune, the military base where the Marine Corps actually contaminated its own well water.

VOOSEN: Yes. Military has a lot of sites that have been declared Superfund sites because of things like the solvents that they would prefer to use for cleaning their guns. At Camp Lejeune, in particular, there's contamination that came from a variety of sources. It's already been linked to birth defects that people suffered living on base until the 1980s. And there's an active investigation underway on whether that might be a cancer cluster linked to it, as well.

WESTERVELT: I mean, your story makes clear thousands of Americans, Paul, have made peace living with contaminated land. I mean, some cities are now rethinking how they use these contaminated area. Tell us about some of those ideas.

VOOSEN: Yeah. So one particularly interesting use is in - just outside Denver, there's the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which was a site where Sarin was manufactured during World War II. And afterward, pesticides were made there for a long time. Now there's been extensive, expensive clean-up there. It's actually provided safe haven for a lot of animals. Bald eagles settled in, and bison and mule deer and lots of other animals who have kind of found safe haven here.

WESTERVELT: In a snapshot, what are some of the other ideas there to kind of move on from these contaminated sites?

VOOSEN: One thing is that renewable power, which is a very space-intensive technology. So these sites might be a great home for solar panels and maybe a great home for wind power, as well. These sites also are much more prosaic reuses - things like just office parks or transit ways. And many people might be hesitant to live above a former Superfund site, but you'll drive over one, or you'll maybe work above it.

WESTERVELT: So it really possible to mitigate the effects of severe contamination enough so that they can become, you know, a solar farm or a park? I mean, come on, it's kite-flying day at Superfund site 47.

VOOSEN: (Laughter) It is possible. Almost 400 sites have been - that were listed on the national priorities list have come off it because they're dubbed totally clean. About a thousand other are construction completes, so that means they have everything that's been constructed to contain the waste, but it's going to take a long time for them to be remediated and cleaned up, you know. It could be a century in some cases.

WESTERVELT: Reporter Paul Voosen - his article on living with Superfund sites is in the December issue of National Geographic. Paul, thanks a lot for coming in.

VOOSEN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.