Why Are Companies Allowed to Delay Cleanup of Toxic Superfund Sites?

2015.11.26.DePue.mainContaminated water released directly into Lake DePue, and layers of soil mixed with heavy metals render the lake unusable for swimming and largely devoid of fish. (Screengrab via GroundswellFilms / YouTube )

Gabrielle Garcia is a 15-year-old who has lived her entire life in DePue, Illinois. She is one of 500 children in her community who face health risks, including cancers and impaired intellectual abilities, due to the fact that the companies responsible for massive contamination in her village – Exxon Mobil and CBS/Viacom – have delayed the cleanup of their toxic waste.

Visitors to DePue are greeted by a slag pile weighing about 750,000 tons that the residents refer to as the “pile of black death.” A zinc smelter began operations in DePue in 1903, burning raw zinc for conversion to rolled zinc for use in automobiles. When it ceased operations in the 1980s, the smelter left behind a blanket of heavy metals, including zinc, arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium throughout the village, affecting DePue’s 1,900 residents.

The heavy metals contamination covers the yards of residents’ homes, the gardens where they grow vegetables, the ball fields and parks where children play, and even the grounds of the village schools. The smelter also released contaminated water through a ditch directly into Lake DePue, and layers of soil mixed with heavy metals render the lake unusable for swimming and largely devoid of fish.

In November 1995, the State of Illinois sued three companies responsible for the contamination to start cleaning up the town. Twenty years later, the responsible companies (whose names today are different because of mergers) are still dragging their feet. This needs to change immediately; they must clean up the mess they made.

Since 1999, DePue has been one of 1,323 sites listed on what is formally referred to as the National Priorities List and is more commonly known as the Superfund list. This is a frightening distinction marking the places so contaminated that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers them to be a risk to human health and/or the environment.

If the health risks are so clear and severe, why haven’t towns like DePue been cleaned up yet?

For some Superfund sites, the answer is the companies that left the contamination are long gone, unidentifiable or bankrupt, and the cost of cleanup falls to the government and a “Superfund” that is largely depleted. That, however, is not the case in DePue, where several of the companies that are responsible for the pollution are still operating on a global scale, with combined profits in 2014 of more than $35 billion (although Horsehead Industries, one of the companies originally sued went bankrupt). But the highly bureaucratic Superfund process makes it too easy for companies to avoid or delay cleanup.

As happens in many affected cities, the responsible companies at DePue have been allowed to spend years testing, assessing and analyzing – and often downplaying – the amount of contamination and risks, all while the exposure continues. It is not unusual for these delays to span 10 or more years, but 20 years is far too long. Meanwhile, children like Gabrielle spend their entire childhoods facing the very real possibility of irreversible damages to their health, including possible damages to their nervous systems, effects on brain development, kidney disease and other organ diseases.

Rather than move forward with cleaning the town and protecting its people, these companies have argued for weaker standards governing the cleanup of heavy metals known to threaten children’s health. For example, over the past two years the companies have fought against using the most current health standards for children exposed to lead. They say that the risks are not significant and that it is too expensive to move and properly bury the slag pile. These delay tactics are unpardonable given the health risks to the residents.

Of course, some may wonder why residents don’t just leave, given the health risks. But most people cannot sell their homes because of the contamination or they can’t afford to live elsewhere. In DePue, specifically, most families are low-income. For example, according to village officials, around 90 percent of children in DePue qualify for the free/reduced-cost lunch program at school. People of color make up at least half the population of DePue, and many residents are recent Latino immigrants who are hoping for a better life for their children.

One would think that the EPA could make the companies clean up. But even where the EPA or states step in, they are often thwarted by companies’ legal maneuvering and the need to reach an agreement with the companies on the scope of the cleanup, as happened in DePue. Today, the Illinois EPA is trying to enforce an “interim consent order” that was agreed to 20 years ago this month. But that order only requires testing and planning; it doesn’t require actual cleanup and the companies spend millions of dollars a year on “experts” who slow down the process and minimize the risks.

With 1,322 other places like DePue on the EPA’s Superfund list, affecting roughly 11 million people in the United States, including 3 million to 4 million children, who live in close proximity to these sites, it is imperative that we find a new and faster way to hold companies accountable in DePue and everywhere else. Allowing companies to drag their feet, and spend years testing and planning is unacceptable when there are lives on the line.