Report finds chemical cleanup leaves hazardous ‘toxic trail’ across U.S.

BY Allison McCartney  March 17, 2014 at 12:27 PM EST
The superheating process used at Calgon Carbon Corp.’s plant can release into the air chemicals called dioxins, which have been linked to cancer and birth defects. Credit: Geoff Bugbee

A new report details how the superheating process used at plants like this one in Kentucky can release chemicals called dioxins into the air, which have been linked to cancer and birth defects. Photo by Geoff Bugbee

Deep under California’s Silicon Valley, pools of toxic water are pumped through an infrastructure of pipes and filters that work around the clock to make the water drinkable again.

But is this massive system doing more harm than good? A new report from the Guardian and The Center for Investigative Reporting has revealed that the costly process of treating toxic water has dubious environmental benefits, and in some cases produces more chemical waste than it removes.

“There’s really no such thing as throwing something away,” Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Rusty Harris-Bishop told CIR. “You’re always throwing it somewhere.”

“There’s really no such thing as throwing something away.”In many cases, the original toxic water, which is the byproduct of solvents used by Silicon Valley’s earliest tech companies to degrease computer chips, is almost untreatable. The report estimates it would take 700 years of continuous treatment to make the groundwater below some parts of Silicon Valley drinkable again.

Silicon Valley, home to some of the world’s largest technology companies, is just one of 1,300 toxic sites that make up the Superfund program, which the EPA defines as “the federal government’s program to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.” By following the trail and tracking the environmental effects of waste from the Silicon Valley Superfund site, CIR was able to piece together the hidden impacts of a widely lauded cleanup program and highlight the challenges the Superfund program faces.

The report also details the following:

  • Waste begets waste. At every step along the trail, treatment leaves behind a new batch of waste that needs to be shipped somewhere else. At one stop, a plant in Wisconsin creates more waste than it takes in.
  • Treatments create new hazards. The superheating used to release toxic chemicals in Kentucky gives way to another danger that isn’t monitored: dioxins. After they escape the plants, dioxins can build up in the food supply and have been linked to cancer and birth defects.
  • The system is highly inefficient. For every 5 pounds of contaminants pulled from the ground, roughly 20,000 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced from continually running pumps, cross-country treks and treatment plants that produce as much greenhouse gas as municipal power plants.
  • Cleanup at the Silicon Valley site, and others like it, isn’t working. Over the past decade, the pollution there has remained stagnant despite constant pumping. In some cases, the treatment is actually increasing the pollution in the water.
  • The costs of treating the waste are enormous. To continue cleanup at sites like this, the EPA estimates taxpayers will spend between $1.2 billion and $3.6 billion over the next 30 years. That doesn’t include the untallied billions more spent by private companies tasked with cleaning up their past messes.

The toxins created in the treatment process can have dire consequences on the health of the environment and the people who live there. But the problem is complicated experts say, with few better solutions currently available.

“Ideally, regulators are thinking holistically about how to reduce the waste and make problems go away,” said Stephen Hill, head of the San Francisco water board’s toxics cleanup division. “Not just how to move them around like a shell game.”

To accompany the investigation, PBS NewsHour Extra, the educational resources site for the NewsHour, partnered with CIR and the Guardian to create a mock trial lesson plan and activities for students to engage with the topic of technology and pollution. If you are a teacher, or know any curious students in your life, check out these educational resources, then encourage your kids to submit Instagram videos using #toxictrail to show how they’re taking action in their community.

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