How Superfund Sites Work
Once a site receives Superfund designation, the EPA begins to clean up the site, forcing responsible parties to participate in the cleanup or reimburse the government for the cleanup costs. Superfund also refers to the trust fund established by Congress that pays for site cleanup.
Chief among asbestos Superfund sites is Libby, Montana, which has experienced a high rate of malignant mesothelioma cancers because of the exposure levels. A contaminated mine released asbestos throughout the town, sickening thousands of residents.
The highest priority Superfund sites are added to the National Priorities List (NPL), which publicly identifies sites under investigation. In January 2022, there were approximately 1,322 Superfund sites on the NPL, and 16 of them contain asbestos hazards.
After a site is added to the NPL, it can take months — even years — before cleanup begins. And once initiated, the process is very thorough and involves strict guidelines. Superfunds that contain asbestos must be evaluated, tested and secured before any actual removal begins.
After a Site Becomes a Superfund, What’s Next?
The Superfund cleanup process involves a series of steps, beginning with site assessment. This first step requires investigators to assess the hazard level of the site and whether immediate action is needed to alleviate asbestos concerns. Once the site has been assessed, it is added to the NPL, and cleanup plans are established. After this stage, the EPA has a number of responsibilities to ensure the site is thoroughly cleaned and safe for public use.
EPA Cleanup Responsibilities
- Removing asbestos where immediate action is needed
- Notifying owners of the property and any other responsible parties
- Ensuring community involvement and public awareness
- Taking remedial action to clean up the site
- Completing cleanup and removing the site from the NPL
- Ensuring safe reuse and redevelopment of the site
- Ensuring long-term protection of human health and the environment
EPA Guidelines for Assessing Asbestos-Related Superfunds
The EPA developed a site assessment framework for asbestos-containing Superfunds to establish a standardized and consistent approach for investigating asbestos hazards. This framework for Superfund evaluation helps site managers and other EPA workers determine an appropriate action for handling asbestos concerns. It ensures proper assessment and considers current and future land use for the public.
Framework for Evaluating Superfund Sites
- Step 1 – Review Historical and Current Data: This step is an evaluation of current and previous asbestos-containing material use and whether naturally occurring asbestos exists on the site.
- Step 2 – Evaluate the Risk for Airborne Asbestos: This step requires the EPA to investigate the current risk for asbestos exposure and if friable asbestos-containing materials in buildings or naturally occurring asbestos deposits pose a hazard to the environment.
- Step 3 – Analyze Human Exposure Possibilities: This step determines the likelihood of human exposure and whether current or future site conditions are hazardous.
- Step 4 – Preliminary Screening and Sampling: This step involves conducting activity-based sampling tests of exposure after high-end disturbances. If asbestos concentrations exceed “air action levels” (when asbestos concentrations in the air require removal), further investigation and possibly immediate response is needed.
- Step 5 – Collect and Analyze Samples: This step further evaluates exposure samples according to location and disturbance activity to estimate the overall level of risk at the site. Exposure concentrations from each sample are measured and calculated to achieve an average threat level. This risk assessment is used to plan future management decisions.
- Step 6 – Response Action: Remedial and removal actions can include a wide variety of activities to reduce the risk of asbestos exposure. Some sites will require immediate action, and therefore asbestos hazards will be removed quickly. Other sites that present asbestos hazards, but are not an immediate concern, will remain hazardous until cleanup is ordered by the EPA.
Examples of Asbestos-Contaminated Superfunds
Asbestos-contaminated Superfunds are addressed according to priority. High-risk sites that pose exposure hazards to the public will naturally be addressed first.
In some cases, the EPA must work with other parties who are responsible for the site and this can slow cleanup. The following asbestos-contaminated Superfunds are examples of sites currently undergoing cleanup.
Possibly the most recognized asbestos-contaminated Superfund is the site of a vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. While in operation, the Libby mine, created in the 1920s by the Zonolite Company and subsequently bought and operated by the W.R. Grace & Co. in 1963, produced approximately 80% of the world’s supply of vermiculite.
Unfortunately, the vermiculite from the Libby mine, which had been given freely to the people, businesses and schools of the town for decades, was contaminated with toxic asbestos fibers proven to cause diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma.
The EPA first sent an Emergency Response Team to the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site in 1999 to assess asbestos exposure levels throughout the town. In 2002, Libby was added to the NPL, officially becoming America’s deadliest Superfund site distinguished by “unacceptable exposures” to asbestos resulting in illness and death.
In fact, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) stated that between 1979 and 1998 mortality rates from asbestosis in the Libby community were 40 to 60 times higher than the corresponding rates for the state of Montana and the United States, respectively.
For the first time in EPA history, administrator Lisa Jackson issued a Public Health Emergency for Libby in June 2009 because of the level of asbestos hazards and the number of asbestos-related diseases reported in the area, including mesothelioma and other respiratory conditions. More than 1,500 Libby residents are still being diagnosed and treated for mesothelioma and related conditions.
In May 2011, the EPA determined that although some risks still exist, it had reduced the level of airborne asbestos concentrations in the town by a factor of 10,000 in comparison to asbestos levels during the period of mining operations.
The EPA announced in July 2017 that cleanup was nearly complete in Libby and the nearby town of Troy. On July 1, 2020, the EPA officially transferred oversight and maintenance of much of the project to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, a major step toward completion.
In September 2021, the EPA announced the deletion of another portion of the Superfund site from the NPL. The segment involved all roads and major highways in and between Libby and Troy.
In 2023, W.R. Grace agreed to an $18.5 million settlement to restore damaged lands in and around the Superfund site.
Cleanup of the actual mine site, which will continue for several more years, will still be overseen by the EPA.
North Ridge Estates
Located in Klamath Falls, Oregon, this residential community was built on the former site of a Marine Recuperation Barracks facility. Many of the buildings from the Marine facility were made with asbestos-containing materials. When they were demolished, the debris was simply covered with soil instead of being taken to a landfill capable of handling asbestos. An asbestos removal project was initiated in 2003, but residents were forced to permanently relocate in 2006. The North Ridge Estates was added to the NPL in September 2011. Soil cleanup began in 2016 and continues on a seasonal schedule because heavy work cannot be conducted during winter months.
George Air Force Base
Located in Victorville, California, this site was added to the NPL in 1990 for asbestos contamination in the soil and in debris scattered throughout the base. Early action was taken in 1990 to eliminate serious hazards, and a review of the site was conducted in 2016, but further cleanup is needed before it can be deleted from the NPL. Air Force bases are historically noted for asbestos hazards.
Pensacola Naval Air Station
A sanitary landfill on the Pensacola Naval Air Station was of specific interest. It was used from the 1950s to 1976 and was determined to contain asbestos from building demolition, among other contaminants. The Navy made significant use of asbestos in the construction of buildings. The construction debris field extended from the south end of North Pond to Powerline Road. A plan to remediate the many contamination problems was developed and implemented.
The EPA placed the landfill on the regulator’s list of Superfund sites because of the amount of asbestos-related cleanup that was necessary. A five-year review was conducted by the EPA in 2013 and site cleanup is expected to continue for many years.
Naval Weapons Station Earle
Although Naval Weapons Station Earle did not contain as much asbestos as some other naval installations, several sites and buildings C-16, C-25, C-40, 511, 553-555 and 557 were known to have been built with asbestos-containing materials. This asbestos contamination, along with other dangerous contaminants, forced the EPA to designate Naval Weapons Station Earle a Superfund site. The station was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List in 1990.
A 1990 to 1995 investigation of 27 sites on the base revealed the presence of lead, chromium, VOCs and asbestos. The investigation included the testing of several samples of groundwater, soil and sediment to determine the nature and the extent of the contamination.
Two landfill locations on the property contained a mix of domestic and industrial wastes and likely were the final destination of asbestos-contaminated materials. Along with other dangerous substances, asbestos has likely contaminated the soil in these areas, according to EPA Superfund records.
These individual sites are currently being cleaned in accordance with the Department of Defense’s Installation Restoration Program. In addition, the Navy is also investigating any possible effects the contaminants may have had on each watershed in the facility. The technologies used in the project, as well as timetables for completion, have been reviewed by the EPA.
Tacoma Dry Dock Shipyard
Despite its reputation as a polluted site, some civic leaders resisted the EPA’s designation of the Tacoma Dry Dock Shipyard as a Superfund in 1983 and, therefore, worked for more local controls. Many local leaders viewed the Superfund designation as a significant blow to the area’s economy because it might have discouraged private investment.
The extent of the Bay’s pollution, however, was impossible to ignore. Commencement Bay was placed on the National Priorities List, meaning it was among the nation’s most polluted sites. Contaminated sediment was found throughout all the waterways, including heavy metals (zinc, lead, mercury, cadmium, copper, nickel), and both high and low PAHs, phthalates and extensive, cancer-causing PCBs.
Part of the solution to the Superfund listing, as an economic roadblock, however, was met when much of the polluted area, including the historic Tacoma Dry Dock, was acquired by the Tacoma Port Authority’s Commencement Bay Industrial Development District. As a result, the cleaning of the remaining asbestos contamination may see some delays, but the Superfund designation should secure eventual cleanup.
In 2013, soil cleanup began and more than 180 residential properties now have clean soil. The EPA conducted a five-year review of Commencement Bay in 2014 and continues to oversee cleanup operations.
Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard
The Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard, also known as the Coast Guard Yard, was responsible for vessel repair and overhaul, manufacturing activities and buoy construction. Operations lasted well into the 1970s. One result of its work was debris that contaminated the facility with toxic substances like asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides and dioxin. In 2008, the EPA signed a federal facility interagency agreement with the Coast Guard for the cleanup of the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard, which was designated as an EPA Superfund site in 2002. The agreement mandated that the Coast Guard identify environmental impacts associated with its past activities and take the necessary actions to protect the community and the environment.
Fike Chemical, Inc.
The Nitro, West Virginia, facility that housed Fike Chemical Inc. was added to the NPL in 1983 for asbestos hazards and a number of other toxins. Initial cleanup was performed in 1984 and the site was last worked on in 2001. The EPA began conducting a five-year review of the site in 2017 and noted that the site is safe in the short-term, but long-term work is required to finish the cleanup. Asbestos concerns stem from building structures and other parts throughout the facility. Chemical plants used asbestos in many applications primarily because the mineral was heat-resistant and reduced the risk of fires.