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Cleanup to start at 49 Superfund sites using money from infrastructure law

The sweeping infrastructure law that President Joe Biden signed in November included $3.5 billion for environmental cleanup at Superfund sites.

WASHINGTON — Clean-up efforts at 49 hazardous waste sites across the U.S. will begin thanks to $1 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law, the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday, clearing out a long backlog of contaminated sites awaiting funding.

The Superfund sites set to get funding are in 24 states plus Puerto Rico. The EPA said 60 percent of them are in historically underserved communities, pointing out that a quarter of Blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. live within 3 miles of a Superfund site.

The Superfund program, created by Congress in 1980, gives the EPA the power to force polluters to pay for cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated sites, or to pay for the cleanup with federal dollars if a responsible party can’t be found. Lead, asbestos and radiation are among the harmful contaminants frequently found.

“Communities living near many of the most serious uncontrolled or abandoned releases of contamination will finally get the protections they deserve,” EPA Administration Michael Regan said in a statement.

Cleanup will also be sped up using the new funds at dozens of other Superfund sites that have already started remediation, the EPA said. 

Regan planned to announce the funds during a visit Friday to one such site, the Lower Darby Creek Area outside of Philadelphia, home to two landfills where hospital and demolition waste was disposed of until the 1970s, depositing hazardous chemicals into the soil and groundwater. Cleanup started in 2019.

The backlog of unfunded sites getting cleanup dollars for the first time includes 550 acres in Roswell, New Mexico, where a group of dry cleaners that operated in the 1950s and 1960s contaminated the soil and groundwater with chemicals that can cause cancer and nerve damage. A previous EPA study found the groundwater plume is expanding, further threatening communities.

In New Jersey, cleanup will be funded at a vacant lot in Newark where the EPA found more than 10,000 deteriorating, 55-gallon drums of hazardous substances that a chemical manufacturer had improperly stored. And in Palo Alto, Puerto Rico, an old pesticide warehouse that burned down in 2003 will be cleaned up, potentially by removing contaminated soil up to 10 feet below the surface.

The sweeping infrastructure law that President Joe Biden signed in November included $3.5 billion for environmental cleanup at Superfund sites.

Yet the Superfund process is notoriously slow and bureaucratic, requiring multiple levels of assessment, review and prioritization before workers can start remediation. Finishing the job is expected to take years and will likely require even more funding.