Superfund Slump

Work on the nation’s most toxic sites has slowed.

By Madeline Bodin

Piles of lead mining waste in Oklahoma captured by Nancy Goldenberg as a part of the photographer’s Tar Creek Superfund series. Photo by Nancy Goldenberg.

The nation’s most complex and extensive toxic waste sites are designated Superfund sites and have their cleanup overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For landscape architects, Superfund sites are complex problems, says Julie Bargmann, ASLA, a professor at the University of Virginia and the principal of D.I.R.T. Studio, a landscape architecture firm with several Superfund site projects in its portfolio. The work takes years to complete, and local stakeholders often struggle with strong, conflicting emotions, she says.

If you hear less about Superfund sites these days, it may be because less work is being done. A recent report, written for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce by the former director of science and technology in the EPA’s Office of Water, Elizabeth Southerland, found that only six Superfund projects completed construction in 2019. It was only the second time in 33 years that the number of Superfund completions had dipped into the single digits. The report also stated that a record 34 Superfund sites slated for cleanup in 2019 did not receive any funding. The next highest number of unfunded projects was 22 in 2012. There are more than 1,300 sites listed on the EPA’s National Priorities List.

The EPA has rebutted news reports of the Superfund slump, releasing a statement asserting that the agency had removed 27 sites from the list in 2019, a record-high number. Southerland says the Trump administration is taking credit for previous work. The EPA typically releases an annual Superfund report in March of the following year. At the end of March 2020, the EPA was still working on its 2019 report, an EPA spokesperson said. Southerland says that the 2019 data was available in other EPA reports. “The Trump administration has had the worst metrics of any administration as far as Superfund cleanup,” Southerland says. “I honestly think it was a conscious decision to hide the information.”

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