Superfunds and Inequality

Low-income communities are most likely to live near superfund sites, leading to high health risks

Superfund sites are located in low-income neighborhoods and they have terrible health impacts on the children and families that live nearby. Among Black and Latinx communities, 1 in 4 people live within 3 miles of a Superfund site.

Living next to a Superfund site may stunt your academic performance, thereby making it harder for you to achieve financial stability later in life. Children conceived to mothers within 2 miles of a superfund site are 7.4 percentage points more likely to repeat a grade, have 0.6 standard deviation lower test scores, and are 6.6 percentage points more likely to be suspended from schools.

Superfund sites are located in low-income communities

1,318 of the nation’s 1,882 superfund sites are located less than 1-mile from a public housing facility. In America’s public housing, 43% of tenants are Black on average, despite being only 14% of the population.

21 million Americans live next to superfund sites and suffer from these effects. The Superfund list includes abandoned mines, radioactive landfills, shuttered military labs, closed factories and other contaminated areas across nearly all 50 states.

Superfunds without enough funds

A superfund is a toxic waste site that poses “a significant risk to human health or the environment” according to the EPA, often consisting of radioactive material, asbestos, lead, hazardous waste, oil leakage, or contaminated groundwater.

The name “Superfund” comes from a piece of 1980s legislation (CERCLA) that established a giant pot of money in the EPA (a $uper fund) that would allow the agency to dedicate resources to cleaning up giant messes. This pot got much smaller in 1995 though when an excise tax on large corporate polluters was not renewed, which slashed the funds available for cleaning up toxic sites. Fortunately, President Biden just renewed this tax in his newest infrastructure bill, which is expected to raise $14.5B over the next 10 years for cleanups and he also dedicated $1B to superfund remediation.

Of more than 47,000 waste sites, the EPA has put over 1,800 on the National Priorities List (NPL) since 1982. When polluters can’t be made to pay to clean them up, the Superfund pays.

Superfunds have terrible impacts on health

Your health will deteriorate as a result of living next to a superfund site, meaning that many Americans develop cognitive challenges, die earlier, pay more in healthcare costs, and suffer from chemical exposure. As we’ve repeatedly seen in America, healthcare challenges are both social and economic challenges, often preventing many from achieving the American Dream.

  • Cognitive development — Children born within 1 mile of a superfund site are 10 percentage points more likely to be diagnosed with a cognitive disability. When families move away from superfund sites, the siblings in these families do not experience these challenges.
  • Life expectancy — Worst yet, living next to a superfund site decreases life expectancy by 15 months on average.
  • Pregnancy — Women living less than a quarter of a mile away from a Superfund site during the first three months of their pregnancies have been found to be 2–4-times more likely to give birth to a child with a heart or neural tube defect.
  • Lead — Residents of the West Calumet Public Housing Complex in East Chicago felt the pains of living next to a superfund site. After many residents had lived in the housing complex for decades, the EPA told them they had to relocate after lead and arsenic were found in the soil, which had been seeping from the Anaconda Lead Products facility. The EPA took soil samples in 2014 and 2015 and found that lead and arsenic levels were as high as 91,100 ppm (parts per million), or 200-times higher than the level required for immediate action. 90% of the residents in Calumet are either Black or Latinx.
Akeeshea Daniels talks about lead levels in her home during a public listening session hosted by the EPA in 2019 — Source: Chicago Tribune

“We found out we were living on top of a lead refinery,” said Akeeshea Daniels, a former resident of the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana, one of the case studies profiled in the report. “By the time we learned that the soil under our homes was contaminated, 40% of the children tested in our community had elevated blood lead levels. There were over 680 children in our housing complex, being poisoned by that lead every day.”

NJ, CA, and PA have the most Superfund sites in America.

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY was designated a superfund site in 2010. Since 1880 when the canal was created, dozens of manufacturing plants, tanneries, and chemical plants operated along the Canal and discharged waste into it. The Canal festered for centuries as sewage and waste water continued to flow into it from around Brooklyn. In 1889, the city proposed spending $75K to clean up the canal (the equivalent of $2M today) but this was deemed too expensive at a time when the only people who lived nearby were blue-collar manufacturing workers. The median income in Gowanus is now $119K and the city is spending $1.5B to clean up the site.

The gunk in the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn is often referred to as “black mayonnaise.” Source — Curbed

The Path Forward

More regularly update the toxic chemicals list — The Substance Priority List is updated every 2 years, which means that families can spend a dangerous amount of time living around toxic chemicals. 275 chemicals are currently on the list. The list should instead be updated annually so that superfund sites do not get neglected and can be cleaned up with greater urgency. In the 8 years from 1992–2000, 153 chemicals were added to the list. In the 16 years from 2001–2017, only 51 chemicals were added.

Improve waste accountability— The EPA isn’t the only ones responsible for cleanups. “Potentially Responsible Parties” (PRPs) that dump toxic chemicals are the ones who are supposed to be principally responsible for cleaning up any mess. The law relies on 6 determinations called “Gore Factors” to derive accountability, but these factor are not clear on what happens if multiple factories are polluting the same river, or about who is responsible if a large company acquires a smaller one that had been polluting for years. The Gore Factors ought to be revisited to improve how we evaluate PRPs.

Prioritize the most toxic sites for cleanup — The EPA can do more to support the most vulnerable communities instead of sites that are easiest to cleanup. The EPA currently uses a “Hazard Ranking System” to scores superfund sites along a range of 1–100 to determine the cleanup prioritization a site (the higher the score, the sooner it gets cleaned). This ranking does not account for whether this is impacting a low-income population, but instead creates a highly weighted measure for how easily the site can be cleaned. Just because work is hard, doesn’t mean it can’t be prioritized more. While the Obama administration created a stated goal to support low-income communities, the EPA should add a new variable to score how much a project supports vulnerable communities.

While living near a superfund site, Melissa Nootz found out her daughter Esme (left) was born with lead in her blood — Source: Montana Standard

Melissa Nootz was priced out of her home and forced to move next to a more affordable house near a Superfund site in Anaconda, Montana. After her first miscarriage, which can be tied to living near heavy-metal exposure, she gives birth to a baby girl on Christmas day. During the pregnancy, her husband spent months shoveling toxic dirt out of their yard in wheelbarrows to get a swingset ready for their baby since the government wasn’t coming quickly enough to clean their hotspot yard. But it wasn’t enough. Melissa explains: “When she is 1, a routine test shows my baby girl has lead in her blood. My husband and I faithfully kept our vows, and we feel cheated and betrayed and utterly, helplessly devastated.”

Google, MIT, Harvard, UPenn, Federal Reserve, now writing about inequality at AmericanInequality.substack.com