Contamination, Where Are You?

Part of the MIlltown Reservoir Superfund Site, Missoula, MT

Part of the Milltown Reservoir Superfund Site, Missoula, MT. Not all Superfund sites are green ooze and rusty drums.

When I’m teaching environmental compliance and hazard management courses, one of the issues I try to convey is that environmental compliance isn’t just for tree huggers and protecting the environment. It’s more about protecting yourself from toxic exposures. First from direct exposure while working with and around hazardous substances and second from exposure to contaminated air, water, and land. When the conversation turns to their own safety or the contamination of their favorite fishing hole, people’s interest picks up. Then they want to know, “How do I find out where all the contamination is located?” So contamination, where are you?

You would be surprised and probably a bit scared by how much contamination we are surrounded by. The park where you walk your dog, the river you cross every day, the nursery where you buy your flowers, the building down the street from where you work, or even the land you’re building a house. They’re not all Superfund sites, but they’re out there.

Fortunately much of this information is provided to the public by the EPA and your state’s environmental agency. The EPA is happy to tell you about it with a “Where You Live” link on its homepage.

Here is a good starting list of links where you can find out if there are contaminated streams, air, or Superfund sites in your life.

1. EPA’s National Priorities List map, which is a list of national priorities among the known contaminated sites. You probably know these by their more common name – Superfund sites.

2. EPA’s Enforcement Annual Results map. This isn’t necessarily all contaminated sites, but a map showing the location of all the concluded enforcement actions from the last fiscal year. Basically, where the EPA found something wrong and action was taken. You’d be surprised, like I was, to find a local business on this map.

3. How about that river, creek or lake where you fish or swim? The EPA has another good website, Enter your location and it will bring up all the surrounding waterways and if they are contaminated.

4. and EPA’s AirNow mobile app will give you the current air quality at your location.

5. Consumption warnings can be found on your state’s environmental protection or fish and wildlife website. Some people are shocked to learn that states may recommend limiting how much fish or waterfowl you eat and to practice catch and release, but these warnings and postings have been around for over a decade.

Housing development near a former nuclear weapons facility in beautiful Arvada, CO.

Housing development near a former nuclear weapons Superfund site in beautiful Arvada, CO.

Here’s an example from my neck of the Colorado Front Range. There are high-end and sustainable homes being built in the far northwest Denver suburbs. It’s a beautiful location right up along the base of the mountains. Unfortunately it’s also the former site of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production facility. That’s right, plutonium. It’s a lot different from cleaning up an oil spill or TCE contaminated soil. As much as I tend to trust environmental scientist who claim the area is clean, it’s a scary thought to be spending a lot of money and a portion of your life living on a former radioactive site.

Even more unusual is that the main development, Candelas, is a sustainable, green living development. What if you just bought a new, sustainably built house surrounded by beautiful Colorado open space, then learned a new highway is being built nearby (which is also happening), and then also learned that the area used to be a nuclear weapons production facility. Time to reconsider that half a million dollars you’re about to spend. I’ve seen enough science (both good and bad) influenced by politics and money that a history of plutonium is enough for me to set aside any science, use common sense, and not to live there.

My final disconcerting point, which drives some of my students wild, is that there is so much contamination that is either not known about or is known about and is not being cleaned up due to limited money, time, and effort. It’s quite amusing to watch a fiscally conservative person get fired up about contamination in their neighborhood and then become conflicted when I tell them the EPA and/or state knows about it but doesn’t have the money to clean it up. Emotion, science, and politics. It can be a “toxic” combination.

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