Do You Live Next Door to a Toxic Waste Dump?

Philis Wood, Contributing Reporter

     In 1978, hundreds of residents of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York became seriously ill. Their homes had been built on top of 21,800 tons of hazardous materials dumped there by the Hooker Chemical Company. The neighborhood was eventually demolished, and this disaster helped inaugurate the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, now widely known as Superfund. According to the website of the Environmental Protection Agency, “Superfund allows EPA to clean up contaminated sites. When there is no viable responsible party, Superfund gives EPA the funds and authority to clean up contaminated sites.”

     As of June 2019, there were 1,344 Superfund hazardous contaminated sites in the US, with 48 other dangerously polluted sites proposed for inclusion on the list. Additional contaminated sites exist which have not yet been proposed for entry on the list. Some of the sites on the Superfund list have been dealt with; these sites remain hazardous and must be monitored indefinitely. Monitoring is crucial because over 49 million Americans live close to a toxic Superfund site. You might be surprised to know that there are 74 Superfund cleanup sites in Arkansas, including sites in Arkadelphia, Bismarck, Hot Springs, Little Rock, Jacksonville, Pine Bluff, and 3 separate sites in El Dorado. At most of these contaminated Arkansas sites, it has not yet been definitively established that hazardous materials no longer leach into groundwater.

     What would life in the U.S. be like without an Environmental Protection Agency? To imagine this, we should realize what the environment was like before the EPA was created in 1970. The EPA made spectacular progress in cleaning up the environment over the first 30 years of its existence. These early successes may be why public memory of environmental conditions before the 1970s has been erased: the most visible pollution has been removed from our view. 

     By the late 1960s, astronauts’ photos of the Earth from space had led to public awareness that the Earth’s resources are finite. Concern about air and water pollution had spread after numerous environmental disasters. An oil spill in California blackened beaches with millions of gallons of oil. Outside Cleveland, the Cuyahoga River—fuming with chemical contaminants—had burst into flame. Deaths from air pollution were common in some U.S. cities, hazardous waste sites were spreading, and air quality was so poor in Pittsburgh that street lights were turned on during the daytime to prevent vehicles from crashing because of poor visibility. These kinds of conditions led to an outburst of public support for environmental protection.

     But today, many Americans behave as if developing and enforcing environmental regulations is no longer a national priority. What EPA successes made this American amnesia possible? Below are four major successes of the EPA.