Tag Archives: superfund

Book review– Superfund: The Political Economy of Risk

9 Oct

51818097KBL._SY300_By: Rebecca Burton


Whenever someone reads the word “Superfund” in the news media, negative words that come to mind might be, “controversy, delay, outrage, cancer, mistrust,” and the list goes on. Superfund and the political and public battles that go along with it are prime meat for the press, especially when you tie in environmental and health risks and “big government.” Coming from a journalist, I can easily see how these types of stories spread like wildfire. But, John Hird’s suggestions for reform of what he calls an inherently inefficient law that was doomed from the onset, may easily make hazardous waste sites less dramatic and therefore less newsworthy.

Although the book did not focus entirely on the problem with the public’s perception of risk, he did mention it quite a bit and I found what he had to say very insightful. Instead of the usual risk communication books that only cover superficial explanations of why experts are always pitted as “against” the public, Hird put the entire problem in the context of the law itself.

Most generic risk communication books suggest problems such as “mistrust of institutions” are to blame for public outrage, and that greater transparency and honesty are the typical cookie-cutter solutions. Nothing is ever that simple. Since my thesis is focusing on evaluating the risk communication efforts of the EPA and the Department of Health to residents who live near the Koppers Superfund site in Gainesville, this book really put into context the history of the law and why it was flawed from the beginning. By understanding this, I can better understand why communication efforts are so tricky, and may not be the right solution to the bigger problem.

Hird begins by explaining how the public perceives chemical hazards. This is important because ultimately public perception of these problems, along with the pull of legislators, is what prompted the solution of the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites such as the infamous Love Canal in New York. Ironically, public perception and fear is also part of the problem with Superfund’s inefficiency. Hird suggests there are more pressing and  concrete environmental and health concerns that we should be fearful of and that Superfund sites are not at the top of the list. Hird notes that Americans rate hazardous waste sites as the number one environmental problem (although this book and the study he cited are outdated by now), even when compared to global warming, deforestation and other problems with more “sound” science to back up the claims. The reasons for this fear of chemicals stemmed from many factors.

First, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring garnered national attention to the risks of pesticides. After that, national news agencies began devoting much more space to environmental stories focusing on health risks such as air pollution, water pollution and solid waste. This was a stark shift from earlier environmental concerns, which focused on themes of conservation, wilderness and stewardship.

Hazardous waste sites are a particular concern to the public since they are typically involuntary. Citizens didn’t choose to have a health risk—no matter how minute—near their home or children. The involuntariness is what makes the public angry, even though at most sites, the risk is no greater than chemicals and pollutants one might be exposed to naturally in their everyday lives.

While most of the science today regarding waste sites poses the risks as being minimal comparatively, Hird notes that the amount of uncertainty along with research agendas means the risks could be bigger than we think, or they could be minimal. Most research suggests the risks are overstated.

In addition to the public’s fear of hazardous waste sites, mistrust of the Environmental Protection Agency is another reason that American’s disagree on the risk of hazardous waste site. But the public’s mistrust alone is not enough to cause the spout of blame, conflict and inefficiency that Hird explains has plagued Superfund. Hird also explained that like a small puppy who knows it is in trouble, the EPA sometimes will sulk and hide even more from the public, and will never brag about the accomplishments it has made to Congress, furthering political polarization.

Despite the controversy, the book proposes that Superfund indeed has good intentions, but those intentions are not carried out in the right way. Hird organizes the book into three sections: assessing and managing risks, efficiency, equity and distributive politics, and explaining and reforming Superfund. In each, he proposes some of the problems with each and in the last section he gives some suggestions for reform and the current limitations on implementing them. I will summarize each section, highlighting some of the themes that resonated with me throughout the book and offer my critique on the solutions. Continue reading

Everyday environmental laws: How the EPA fits into the urban grid

11 Sep

Summer Science explained:

Summer Science explained is a new blog series on Layman’s Terms Media. Each week, phenomena that are unique to summer time will be broken down and explained. I am currently taking suggestions for topics, so if there is something you’ve always wondered about feel free to contact me and pitch an idea!


Environmental laws in the United States help protect us every day. While they are not flawless, and are always improving, we may take for granted how much they affect our lives. In a way, the protect us from ourselves.

As a high-consuming society we produce a ton of waste (well, millions of tons) and this waste can be dangerous if not monitored and controlled in a systematic manner. For this reason we have these laws to thank for one of the most vital life sources: clean drinking water.

My environmental health professor, Dr. Joseph Delfino used a hand-drawn version of the urban grid below in class to stress this point. I simply made a computerized version of it, but it was his idea. I asked him if I could post a similar version and write a post explaining how they connect to us in our every day lives.  With his permission, here it is!

How we experience environmental laws

How we experience environmental laws


What are environmental laws?

Environmental laws include every type of environmental protection that derives from:

  • U.S. and state constitutions
  • Federal and state statutes and constitutions and local ordinances
  • Regulations published by federal, state and local agencies
  • Presidential executive orders
  • Court decisions interpreting these laws
  • Common law

What the acronyms stand for:

SDWA: Safe Drinking Water Act

Who doesn’t want to drink water that is safe? I may be an adrenaline junkie but I don’t think using the word “dangerous” to describe a vital life source sounds appealing to me. This law is meant to ensure that our drinking water poses only a minimal risk to our health.

Florida SUPER (State Underground Petroleum Environmental Response) Act

The gas you pump in your car is typically stored underground, the same place where our water comes from. If the storage tanks are damaged or start leaking for any reason, there is a risk of petroleum leaking into the water we drink. The purpose of this act is to identify areas in the state that may be contaminated and take steps to minimize health risks and get drinkable water to that community through new treatment centers or alternative sources.

CWA: Clean Water Act

Most of the things we own were probably at a factory of some sort before they were in our possession. These factories all produce waste that needs to be disposed of properly. The Clean water Act ensures that these factories, and any other businesses that release pollutants abide the wastewater standards enforced by the law as well as obtain a permit before releasing any pollutant into navigable waters.

RCRA: Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The factories I was talking about in the last law also may have  solid or hazardous waste (waste that is dangerous or potentially harmful to our health) they need to dispose of properly. This law makes sure that waste is tracked “from cradle to grave” or from the source to the hazardous waste storage site.

CERCLA (Superfund): Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act

This act helps with financial support for cleaning up old and abandoned waste sites as well as spills, accidents and any other major pollutants released into the environment by providing a “superfund.” But, this fund isn’t infinite and if the source of the pollution can be identified, the parties responsible will also be picking up the bill for the cleanup.

Now that I have you filled in about what the laws are and what they do (please refer to the links for a more in-depth explanation) I decided to go back in time to the fourth grade and give poetry another try. After days and days of academic writing, I decided to have some fun. Point of clarification: the cheesiness is well intended.

A girl who thinks too much about water

I live in the countryside my water comes from a well

Until last week, it was as clean as I could tell. 

But then I got sick and it wasn’t very pretty,

I packed my bags and moved to the city. 

My well water wasn’t protected since it wasn’t a municipal source

Ah! Municipal water is protected by the SDWA, of course!

It comes from the ground, the river to the plant to get treated.

Driving to school now, my car has overheated!

Oh, wait. The tank is on E!

I shake my head. This always happens to me.

I look across the street, a station is found.

As I walk, I think “Is fuel stored underground?”

It is, but what if something goes wrong?

If a tank leaks, to the city will it flow along?

If it does, not to stress

The Florida Super Act will put the issue to rest. 

But what about the factories? And all of the waste?

Can it get into my water too? I start to pace.

Aha! The waste tracked is from “cradle to grave” 

I stop and ponder. Oh, right the RCRA

But, what about the waste that gets away, can it seep into my water?

No, worries. The CWA takes care of that bother.

Eventually any abandoned waste sites will be sanitized

and the party responsible for the pollution will be fined. 

If no culprit is found, CERCLA says the EPA can tap into the “superfund” money

The money’s not infinite, so its not a matter so funny. 

These laws and regulations are not a one-stop solution, 

But they help prevent chaos, bad health and pollution. 


Ok, I know. I forewarned you about the cheesiness. But, I hope you now have a better understanding of some of the main environmental laws that protect us every day.