Superfund: An Unsung Victim of COVID

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The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) — commonly known as “the Superfund” — was enacted in December 1980 in response to growing awareness of, and concern over, the catastrophic environmental impact of unregulated and largely unrestricted dumping of toxic waste into the ecosystems and communities around dump sites.

Executed by the Environmental Protection Agency, Superfund represented the first federally regulated attempt to address these environmental issues — principally through short-term removal actions, such as properly disposing of partially empty drums of toxic waste, as well as long-term remedial actions, such as applying an environmentally acceptable way of containing substances at a site.

As of December, there were approximately 1300 sites on the Superfund National Priorities List, with approximately 450 sites having been cleaned-up and removed from the register.

As with virtually every aspect of first-world society, the Coronavirus pandemic caused massive disruption in implementation of Superfund cleanups. Specifically, the pandemic negatively affected the EPA’s ability to administer Superfund activities in three ways:

1.) Travel Restrictions prevented regional project managers (RPMs) from vital site visits in up to 76 percent of active Superfund cleanup sites.

2.) Community involvement, necessary to ascertain the scope and depth of Superfund-site impact among local communities — (through blood sampling of affected residents, for instance) — was reduced by roughly 30 percent.

3.) And, insufficient policies were enacted to test EPA workers during mission-critical work, resulting in less than 10 percent of RPMs being tested regularly and uniformly provided with vaccines.

The chief vital resource expended to adapt to these newly developing issues was time.

While enterprising and dynamic solutions were introduced to address these problems — like the use of remote videography to assist RPMs who could not themselves visit sites, and the now-ubiquitous virtual meetings to allow RPMs to liaise with local community officials — the consequence was to extend exposure of human health and ecological receptors to toxins, contaminants, or pollutants.

Like with so much in the wake of the pandemic, only time will tell of the eventual cost.