After house-hunting for over three months, we thought we finally found our dream home. But, when we learned the house was less than 3 miles from a Superfund site, we were devastated.
What are Superfund sites? Well, Superfund sites are areas that have been contaminated by hazardous waste and other toxic substances. According to the EPA, these sites will pose risks to human health and the environment until all necessary actions are taken to clean them up.
As of this writing, there are over 1,300 active Superfund sites in the EPA database. Some are in rural areas while others are in densely populated cities. And, with the exception of North Dakota, every state contains at least one.
What Is the EPA’s Superfund Program?
Superfund sites range in size and origin. The current Superfund list includes areas contaminated by a host of things, including dry cleaners, landfills, wood treatment facilities, processing plants, manufacturing plants, and military installations.
The common thread among each of these sites is the improper handling or mismanagement of hazardous wastes. Contamination can occur over many years, or in an instant, as is the case when an accident causes the release of toxic substances into the surrounding environment.
Once the EPA identifies an area of concern, it works to control the source of the contamination to prevent further issues. Then, it assesses the need for a full-scale cleanup effort in the area.
Using a screening system known as the Hazardous Ranking System (HRS), the EPA quantifies the risk a site poses to people and the environment. HRS scores can range from 0 to 100, but only those sites with scores of 28.5 or higher qualify for inclusion on the National Priorities List (NPL).
Sites the EPA includes on the NPL are candidates for possible long-term remedial action using money from the Superfund trust fund.
The primary goal of the EPA’s Superfund Program is to protect human health and the environment. When the EPA designs and executes cleanup plans, it considers the health and safety of all who live or work on or near a given site.
Is Your Home Near a Superfund Site?
Superfund sites can be difficult to identify, especially if you’re new to an area.
Below are two photographs of the Rocky Flats site, an area roughly 17 miles northwest of Denver, CO. The first photo, from July 1995, shows the site before the final cleanup was completed. The second photo, on the other hand, was taken in 2011 after efforts were made to remediate the area.
To the untrained eye, the second photograph makes the Rocky Flats site look nearly pristine. Unless someone told you otherwise, you would have no reason to believe the area was the former home of a nuclear weapons plant. A plant that had several accidents during its operation, including plutonium fires that caused widespread contamination of the surrounding area.
While they may not always be apparent, Superfund sites are in literally thousands of communities throughout the nation. In fact, according to an October 2017 estimate by the EPA, nearly 53 million Americans or 16% of the total U.S. population live within three miles of a Superfund site.
Wyoming (1 NPL site) and South Dakota (2 NPL sites) are among the states with the fewest Superfund sites. On the other end of the spectrum, New Jersey and California have the two highest site totals at 114 and 97, respectively.
U.S. Counties with the 10 highest Superfund site totals:
|County||Number of Superfund Sites|
|Santa Clara County, CA||22|
|Los Angeles County, CA||17|
|Montgomery County, PA||17|
|Middlesex County, MA||14|
|Middlesex County, NJ||14|
|Nassau County, NY||14|
|Harris County, TX||13|
|Hillsborough County, FL||12|
|Burlington County, NJ||11|
|New Castle County, DE||11|
So, just how close are you to the nearest Superfund site? Whether you’re relatively new to your area or a long-standing resident of the community, you might not know the answer to this question. That’s why we created the Hazardous Site Locator, a free tool you can use to locate Superfund sites near your home.
What Should You Do If You Live Near a Superfund Site?
Several years ago, my wife and I thought we’d found a place we’d be happy calling “home” for the foreseeable future. But, barely a year after moving in, we discovered a problem with our first home: it was mere miles from the Rocky Flats Superfund site.
We were really smitten with the house and the gorgeous views, so before deciding what to do next, we did some thorough research.
Here are some of the questions we considered as we navigated this significant decision-making process:
1. What was the nature of the activities that took place on the site?
Hazardous waste has contaminated numerous sites across the country, including landfills, mines, and manufacturing plants.
2. What contaminants are involved, and what is the scope of the affected area?
Superfund sites release toxic substances that can negatively affect the air, water, and soil in the surrounding area. Lead, arsenic, and mercury are the top three contaminants found at Superfund sites, but asbestos, dioxins, and radioactive substances are also common.
3. What is the status of the cleanup effort at the site?
Before the EPA deletes a site from the NPL, it typically conducts a series of reviews to ensure the cleanup was sufficient enough to provide for the long-term protection of human health and the environment. As a result, some sites remain on the active site list long after cleanup activities are substantially complete.
4. How could the site impact home values in the surrounding area?
The existence of a Superfund site in your community could cause area home prices to decline. For more information on how property values are trending in your neighborhood, consider working with the local tax authority or a real estate professional.
If you’re ever faced with making a similar decision, take note of any questions or concerns you may have, and conduct some independent research. Arm yourself with the necessary information, and you’ll be able to determine the best course of action for you and your family.
Your property is near a Superfund site. Will the EPA investigate your property at your request? Your property might be near a Superfund site, but that does not necessarily mean it is contaminated. But, if you think your property contains contamination from a Superfund site, you are encouraged to contact your regional EPA office.
Your property is near a Superfund site. How can you find out if the EPA tested for pollution on your property? The EPA works to keep the community informed of testing and cleanup activities related to Superfund sites. Sampling results and other details are available at public information repositories provided by the EPA and on the EPA Superfund website.
If your property is contaminated, are you required to inform potential buyers? Many states have disclosure laws that require sellers to notify buyers of pollution problems. Contact a local real estate professional for more information on the specific requirements in your state.