Palo Alto lawmaker opens inquiry into EPA’s toxic waste cleanup program

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, seen in 2010, wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking for more details about its Superfund cleanup program. Her district, in the heart of Silicon Valley, includes several Superfund sites.

Credit: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

A Silicon Valley lawmaker has opened an inquiry into the toxic trail of environmental damage created by the Superfund cleanup program.

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, today requested details on how the Environmental Protection Agency deals with the pollution that’s left behind by treating and shipping toxic waste across the country and whether it’s looked into alternative cleanup methods.

In a letter to EPA chief Gina McCarthy, Eshoo says the Superfund law has “been undoubtedly successful at cleaning up toxic waste sites.”

“However, what I’m concerned about is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is failing to properly monitor and regulate the emissions associated with remediating the toxic pollutants recovered from Superfund sites,” she writes.

The inquiry comes two weeks after The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian published an investigation that revealed as many as one-third of all Superfund sites could be causing more harm than good.

Once waste leaves the sites, it crisscrosses the country in a trail with no clear end. The constant treatment, shipping and burning of waste releases greenhouses gases and gives way to danger that’s as alarming as the one that’s trying to be cleaned – dioxins linked to cancer.

Meanwhile, the cleanup efforts causing the damage in many cases are no longer effective. At one site in Silicon Valley, it would take 700 years of continuous treatment to make it clean to EPA standards.

The shortcomings from Superfund cleanup hit close to home for Eshoo, whose district – in the heart of Silicon Valley – includes 11 Superfund sites.

An analysis of the past decade of data shows that the pump-and-treat technology used for cleanup at a Silicon Valley site hasn’t improved the level of groundwater contaminants.

Credit: Noah Berger for CIR

She is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change. She was not immediately available for comment today, but a spokesman for her office said her letter was meant to establish key facts “before the congresswoman moves forward with this.”

Eshoo wants to know whether the EPA has investigated alternatives to the outdated treatment method, known as “pump and treat,” being used in Silicon Valley and hundreds of other sites.

In her letter, she asks McCarthy if the EPA monitors carbon dioxide emissions and the creation of dioxins by treatment. She also asks whether the EPA has the authority to track these emissions, or whether it would need congressional action to do so.

McCarthy, who received the letter from Eshoo this afternoon, did not respond to requests for comment.

The “EPA takes the issues of the protectiveness of the cleanup and disposal of contaminants, including the emissions of GHG (greenhouse gases), very seriously in the Superfund program,” a spokeswoman from McCarthy’s office said in an email. “We will review the letter and provide a detailed response regarding our efforts in the areas that were identified.”

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue. It was copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Christine Lee.

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