This story appears in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
For most of his adult life Jun Apostol has lived, willingly, in the shadow of a mountain of waste. An accountant who’s now retired, he planted his family in 1978 in a modest new house in Montebello, an industrial cum bedroom community just east of Los Angeles. Behind the house, in neighboring Monterey Park, sat an active landfill—but don’t worry, the developer said. Soon it would close and become a park or maybe even a golf course.
The greens never came. It turned out that the landfill, a former gravel pit that had welcomed so much ordinary trash it had filled to ground level and then kept on rising, had also accepted some 300 million gallons of liquid industrial waste—and it hadn’t been selective. Was your waste laced with arsenic, 1,4-dioxane, or mercury? No problem. The nodding pump jacks nearby, left from the oil boom, wouldn’t care. Some of the waste might have come from drilling those oil wells.
Los Angeles had buried the hazardous waste, but it was far from gone. A few years after Apostol’s development was built, his neighbors began complaining of nausea. Gas had intruded into six homes. Property values plummeted. In 1986 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency marched in and listed the landfill as a Superfund site, part of its new program to contain the nation’s hazardous waste crisis.
Back then many hoped the national cleanup might end after a decade or two. That didn’t happen at the Operating Industries, Inc., landfill in Monterey Park. The EPA capped the landfill with a processed-clay membrane and two feet of soil. Gases from the waste are now collected and burned; a treatment plant processes 26,000 gallons of contaminated water a day. The EPA has so far recuperated $600 million for the cleanup from various parties responsible for the waste at the site—and it does not foresee an end to its work.
No one talks about the dump anymore. “People have forgotten about it,” Apostol said one afternoon in his indoor patio, with music jingling on his speakers and his small dog, in a faded “Romney 2012” sweater, yapping for attention. House prices are up again, he said, and most residents have stayed put. His wife got breast cancer, but he doesn’t blame the landfill. He’s come to respect it since the EPA intervened: It’s so heavily managed that, unlike people in neighboring towns, he doesn’t worry about mudslides.
“We don’t have any regrets,” Apostol said. “Where else can you go?” He could have moved, he admitted, but the commute from Montebello was too good. Living next to a waste site may not be ideal. But neither is bad traffic.
Today nearly one in six Americans lives within three miles of a major hazardous waste site, though few people could tell you where it is. These sites fall under the Superfund program, created by Congress in 1980 after a high-profile controversy at the Love Canal development in Niagara Falls, New York. Love Canal’s residents crusaded against the Hooker Chemical Company after they found barrels of its chemical waste in their backyards, which had been built on a former dump. Love Canal left many Americans wondering, Could this be happening near me?
There are more than 1,700 Superfund sites, and each has a story. Some are sacrifices to national security, like the 586 square miles at Hanford, in Washington State, where reactors have made plutonium for atomic bombs since the Manhattan Project. Others are the shells of mines, like the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, excavated in pursuit of copper and now filling with water. There are chemical manufacturers, smelters, and grain elevators that were once drenched in fumigant. Water, which can spread poison, is a common theme: New York City’s Gowanus Canal is listed, as are parts of the Hudson River and the harbor of New Bedford, Massachusetts. And then there are the many, many landfills.
That these contaminated places are no longer the focus of national attention is in part due to a rarely cited phenomenon: governmental competence. Despite chronic underfunding, the EPA has finished the cleanup at more than 380 sites and considers the construction of treatment facilities complete at more than 1,160 others, including Monterey Park. Not everything is rosy. Even where the waste is under control it’s still there—and the agency estimates it has 95 uncontrolled sites, where people might one day be exposed to toxics. But the urgency of the 1970s has, for the most part, passed.
Money remains a constant problem. The Superfund program once had two pillars: rules that held past polluters liable for cleanup and a “Superfund”—financed by taxes on crude oil and chemicals—that gave the EPA the resources to clean up sites when it could not extract payment from the responsible parties. Congress let those taxes expire in 1995; the program is now funded by taxes collected from all Americans. It’s low on staff. The Superfund itself is nearly empty.
Superfund sites have entered a mostly benign but lingering state, dwarfed in the public’s eye by issues like climate change, says William Suk, who has directed the National Institutes of Health’s Superfund Research Program since its inception in the 1980s. “It’s not happening in my backyard, therefore it must be OK,” is how Suk sees the prevailing attitude. “Everything must be just fine—there’s no more Love Canals.”
Back when leaking drums were cropping up in people’s backyards, the fear was that hazardous waste would drive a cancer epidemic. That prediction hasn’t come true. Identifying a statistically significant cancer cluster is notoriously difficult, but so far at most three have been tied to hazardous waste in the U.S. (Love Canal is not one of them.) Forty percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, mainly the result of random errors in their DNA that arise as cells divide. As a risk factor, pollution in general ranks below smoking, obesity, diet, alcohol, and several viruses.
That’s not to say that hazardous waste sites are safe. Cancer is only one danger associated with them; birth defects are another. A ghost of uncertainty attends these polluted places. Suk offers the Cuyahoga River in Ohio as an example. When it caught fire in 1969, it helped lead to passage of the Clean Water Act and to cleaner rivers all over the U.S.—but it and other rivers are far from clean enough. “It’s not on fire anymore,” Suk says. “But I wouldn’t swim in it.”
How do we live with contaminated land? We need to find more ways to use these brownfields instead of green ones, says ecologist Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Brownfields are important to cities,” he says. “In a sense they’re waste, but so is manure. It’s just something that needs to get recycled.”
The EPA agrees. It’s seeking uses for polluted land that could remain under its oversight indefinitely. “Basically we’ll be here forever,” says Julie Santiago-Ocasio, the EPA’s site manager at Monterey Park. It costs $5.5 million a year to treat leachate and landfill gas and make sure that contaminated groundwater doesn’t spread off the site—but a small pilot plot of solar panels atop the landfill offers hope that one day it might collect a lot of solar energy as well.
A more dramatic kind of reuse is happening at the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal, near Denver. During World War II the U.S. Army made mustard gas at the site, which is about the size of Manhattan, and later the nerve gas sarin; the Shell Chemical Company produced the pesticide dieldrin there. Waste was shunted into a basin that became a black hole of contamination.
When Sherry Skipper first arrived at the site as a young biologist in the early 1990s, she would often don booties, respirators, and goggles to check on starlings she was using, like canaries in a coal mine, to monitor pollution. The birds fed on worms and burrowing insects that accumulated dieldrin. Skipper remembers one damp spring in particular when the earthworms emerged—and birds that ate them fell out of trees, convulsing. “That’s never going to happen again,” she said one day last winter.
The place is now a wildlife refuge, and Skipper was riding around it with its manager, David Lucas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s a wholly altered landscape. The chemical facilities were razed between 1999 and 2003 and covered with a “biota barrier”—ground-up tarmac from the old Denver airport topped by four feet of soil—to keep animals from burrowing into the contamination. Native prairie grasses now whisk water away from it. On the refuge’s fringes, wells block the spread of polluted groundwater. New town houses have sprouted on the border.
With the Denver skyline as a backdrop, we watched for bald eagles—up to 80 of them roost here during winter. There are bison, prairie dogs, and mule deer. People should never live on the site itself, Skipper said. But there’s an upside to that. “What are the chances,” Lucas said, “that there’d be 16,000 acres right here in the middle of Denver—undeveloped, for wildlife—if it wasn’t a Superfund site?”