EPA Widens Superfund Cleanups Near Public Housing

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By Sylvia Carignan

The EPA’s discovery of lead contamination near low-income public-housing units has expanded some investigations and broadened its collection of Superfund site location data.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development prioritized 13 lead-contaminated sites following a data review late last year. The EPA is using that data to urge site project managers to identify potential contamination at HUD housing near Superfund sites, an EPA spokesperson told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 2.

The EPA has removed lead-contaminated dirt from low-income neighborhoods in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Chattanooga, Tenn. as a result of the review. In addition, the agencies prioritized 10 Superfund sites where nearby residents might be exposed to lead.

“Awareness of the proximity of public housing has enabled project managers at several sites—not just the top 10 priorities—to identify nearby public housing that needed to be prioritized for investigation or cleanup,” the spokesperson said. At the majority of the sites, EPA said, HUD residents ultimately “were not at any elevated risk from their proximity to these sites.” EPA has not yet provided details on where lead posed risks to residents.

Location, Location, Location

Many of those 10 locations, on a list obtained by Bloomberg BNA, are large Superfund sites where housing properties fall within the site’s boundaries. Others had actions already planned to address contamination, according to the EPA. HUD chose the 10 sites in November as locations where lead exposure was likely, in order to ask EPA to collect more information on them.

Before the EPA and HUD partnership began in January, the agencies’ investigations and assessments were often separate.

“When we asked our regions about this project, they said it was hard to get access to subsidized properties because of who handled them,” Alicia Frame, an EPA biologist, said at a meeting of the EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee July 19.

But outside the Superfund program’s assessments, contamination may go unrecognized. “If contamination near HUD housing is not on a Superfund site, there is no set policy for cleaning up that site,” said Lauren Hayes, who represented HUD at the meeting.

Site Boundaries

The EPA decided to take action at low-income housing properties near lead-contaminated sites to reduce the chances of another public health crisis such as the problems in East Chicago, Ind. A former industrial site there is contaminated with lead and arsenic. Public housing was built decades ago atop a lead smelter. In 2009, the site was added to the Superfund National Priorities List, which contains the most contaminated sites in the country.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) declared a disaster emergency at the site in February.

Debbie Chizewer, environmental advocate at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic, tracks progress at the East Chicago site. Chizewer told Bloomberg BNA that she has been concerned about lead contamination in similar neighborhoods around the country.

“There are many cases where the boundaries are not drawn correctly to start with, and East Chicago is a perfect example,” Chizewer said.

According to Frame, the agency’s only internal requirement for recording the locations of Superfund sites is latitude and longitude.

“Superfund does not have a national policy for the collection of geospatial data describing site boundaries,” she said at the July 19 meeting.

Chizewer said EPA had not tested enough East Chicago homes for indoor and outdoor lead-based paint, lead in drinking water, or indoor lead dust. “The fact that that wasn’t done in East Chicago makes me wonder if it’s being done at other sites,” she said. “They’re missing a whole swath of exposure pathways.”

The agencies’ findings should lead to stricter health standards, said Emily A. Benfer, distinguished visiting scholar at Yale Law School’s Solomon Center for Health Law & Policy. “At a minimum, children and pregnant women should not be exposed to elevated lead and arsenic levels in the soil at any of the identified sites,” she told Bloomberg BNA.

New National Priorities

There are 1,390 proposed and finalized sites on the National Priorities List. Of those, 36 percent—or 505 sites—are within a mile of a HUD public housing building or HUD-subsidized multifamily building, according to the EPA.

“Superfund cannot sample public housing that is not expected to be impacted by a release, or threat of a release, but we can prioritize identifying and sampling housing that falls within our authorities,” an EPA spokesperson told Bloomberg BNA.

Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, notes that the EPA and HUD data review doesn’t include people living near contaminated sites on housing vouchers, also known as Section 8 vouchers. Low-income individuals or families using the vouchers must find private owners willing to rent under the program.

“There’s no easy inventory of them, but they’re still important,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

The EPA is working on a broader Superfund data review, in addition to its partnership with HUD. According to the agency, it will review National Priorities List sites to address gaps in data on contaminants, remedies, site size, and site location.

The agency also has begun to incorporate the size of local populations into its Superfund data, according to an EPA spokesperson.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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