Two and a half decades ago, I left my home in Austin, Texas, armed with a BS in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin with an emphasis in water resources and environmental pollution control, and moved out to Los Angeles, California. My job as a young engineer was to be part of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Powers (LADWP) Superfund Group, a team in charge of assessing and cleaning up four federal Superfund sites in the San Fernando Valley (SVF) of southern California. Having taken Environmental Engineering 101 (“dilution is NOT the solution to pollution”), as well as classes in waste and hazardous waste management, hydrogeology, and many others, I felt ready to tackle the Superfund world…but what was it really?
Passed in 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) created national policy and procedures for identifying and cleaning up the nation's worst hazardous waste sites. CERCLA established the National Priority List (NPL), an inventory of such sites that may endanger public health, welfare, or the environment, and established a $1.6 billion fund made up of taxes from crude oil and commercial chemicals to fund their assessment and clean up. At the time, this $1.6 billion was presumed to be sufficient to remediate all such messes, as CERCLA’s intent was that the government would go after past polluters, potential responsible parties (PRPs), and require them to complete and fund cleanup. Under CERCLA’s strict, joint, several, and retroactive liability, former or current property owners and others who may have transported hazardous waste to a site could all be responsible for funding the cleanup of environmental degradation, regardless of who created the contamination. All PRPs identified would be responsible for the full cost of cleanup.
In 1986, the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) amended CERCLA, providing an additional $8.5 billion funding and including provisions creating an “innocent landowner” defense to CERCLA liability for persons who could demonstrate that they “did not know or have reason to know” of a release or threatened release of hazardous substance on, in, or at the property prior to purchasing a property. Since the passage of SARA, CERCLA has become commonly known as Superfund, and EPA’s Superfund Program has become the federal government's program to assess and remediate the nation's NPL sites, ensuring the protection of human health and the environment. Sites on the NPL are also known as Superfund Sites, as the Superfund trust fund is used to clean up contaminated sites. While PRPs are liable for the cost of Superfund cleanups, the Superfund covers such costs when liable parties no longer exist or either cannot or will not undertake a cleanup.
San Fernando Valley NPL Sites
In 1986, EPA included four regions in the San Fernando Valley (SFV) on the NPL. Contamination in these four areas of the SFV affected aquifers that were, and still are, an important part of LADWP’s water management plan, contributing (at that time) approximately 15% of the potable water supply for the City of Los Angeles and neighboring cities of Glendale and Burbank. Since LADWP has overall responsibility of water supply for the City of Los Angeles, and they are required to provide to their customers water that meets federal and state and drinking water standards, they signed a cooperative agreement with EPA in 1987, receiving federal funds to conduct a basin-wide remedial investigation, construct treatment facilities, and conduct additional feasibility studies.
Being 22 and just out of college, with little money of my own, I couldn’t help wondering why the EPA and LADWP were spending so much money to tackle groundwater contamination, with depth-to-water sometimes 300+ feet deep, in aquifers that “only” provided 15% of Los Angeles’ water supply? However, a quick comparison between the City of LA’s and Austin’s populations in 1989 told me why…LA had, and still has a lot of people…15% of LA’s population was greater than the size of my home town! In addition, as I soon learned, the supply of potable water available in this naturally desert region is quite limited.
The SFV and Superfund Today
A significant amount of work, millions of dollars, and over three decades later, EPA has deleted one of the four areas from the NPL in the SFV; the remaining three are still on the NPL list, with investigation and cleanup activities ongoing. Overall, billions of federal dollars are still budgeted annually to implement Superfund programs; yet Superfund is no longer paid for by taxes on oil and chemicals…the budget comes from the federal government’s general revenue. The population across the entire country continues to increase, and the need for clean drinking water, particularly in Southern California, is essential, as nearly all areas of the country face years of on-going drought.
What we’ve learned over the years since CERCLA was passed is that historic contamination is not quick, easy, or inexpensive to assess and clean up, and the likelihood of finding PRPs to cover all costs is low. The general taxpayer today is bearing the burden of the past sins of others, and the costs and number of contaminated sites just keep adding up. While the original NPL consisted of 406 sites, as of March 26, 2015, there are 1,323 uncontrolled hazardous waste sites on the NPL and an additional 51 sites proposed for inclusion. These numbers are for federal Superfund sites, only; they do not include the numerous state-funded superfund sites, in addition to an estimated 4,000 state-led Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Corrective Action sites, including many with risks comparable to Superfund sites.
We as a society need to insist that industries continuously invest in measures to prevent contamination from occurring. Companies need to comply with environmental regulations even going beyond compliance to reduce their impact on our Earth while they are still viable operating facilities, in order to avoid the more costly alternative of cleanup. All too often, contamination caused by poor practices ultimately leads companies into bankruptcy, deferring the assessment and cleanup to state-led corrective actions or federal Superfund, with costs being born by the general public. With water supplies dwindling, taking measures now to keep all potential sources of water clean is increasingly important.
STP publishes the following guides related to compliance and auditing:
Environmental Auditing: Integrated Federal & California Compliance Guide
A range of Air quality MACT Standard guides
In addition, STP publishes Site Auditing: The Environmental Assessment of Property that provides an overview of CERCLA/Superfund, RCRA Corrective Action and Brownfields; the background and history of due diligence, and guidance on conducting All Appropriate Inquiry under the 40 CFR 312 and the ASTM E1527 Standard. See also the STP blog on California’s Water Crisis.
About the Author
Ms. Luman has over 25 years of experience as a consultant and project manager in the environmental field.
She has conducted Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) and subsurface assessments of various business, manufacturing, and petroleum facilities, and has managed investigations and removal actions at State Superfund sites.
Ms. Luman has also performed multi-media environmental compliance audits and environmental management system assessments within the aerospace, semiconductor, food, manufacturing, shipbuilding, and utility industries, and has prepared numerous environmental plans, permits (SPCC, SWPPP, NPDES, FRP, Emergency Contingency, and Hazardous Waste Management), and regulatory reports (Air Emissions Inventory, EPCRA, Discharge Monitoring, and Annual Waste Summaries).
She has been responsible for identifying environmental, health, and safety legal obligations for various businesses and industries across the United States, and for maintaining their compliance with the regulations. Prior to entering the private sector, Ms. Luman worked for a major public water supplier where she was involved in a federal Superfund Remedial Investigation involving the study of groundwater contamination over a 60-square mile area.
Most recently, she formed her own business, Healthy Tweaks, LLC, to raise awareness of the impact of chemicals on the environment, in consumer products, and on human health, particularly that of children. Her goal is to educate consumers and businesses to enable them to make choices that will improve their health and reduce their ecological footprint.
Ms. Luman is currently the lead author of Site Auditing and was previously the lead author on other STP regulatory publications covering federal EPA and State environmental differences, federal and California OSHA requirements, and federal construction and transportation regulations.
She completed her B.S., Civil Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin in 1989, and is a Professional Engineer licensed in Texas and California, and registered in New York. Her interest in understanding the impact of the built environment on the natural environment led her to become a LEED® Accredited Professional in 2009. She is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Auditing Roundtable, the Texas Association of Environmental Professionals, and the U.S. Green Building Council. She is also on the Houston Advisory Board for The Nature Conservancy.