What the EPA’s accelerated Superfund cleanups mean in a region with a long legacy of contamination
When Missouri Rep. Doug Clemens, D-St. Ann, heard that President Joe Biden’s recently passed infrastructure legislation included a $1 billion investment in a backlog of Superfund site cleanups, he was thrilled. Two of the 49 sites across the U.S. that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified for accelerated attention as part of this first wave of funding are in Missouri.
But Clemens said the EPA’s plans in Missouri — which include volatile organic chemicals in soil and groundwater in the southwest St. Louis County municipality of Valley Park and the Ozark foothills town, Vienna — still fall short of what is needed in the region.
“We have a TCE [trichloroethylene] site not too far from where I live, in [my] neighboring district, off of Page Boulevard, which they have been remediating for decades,” Clemens said of the ongoing need. “We are sitting with areas in north St. Louis that have not begun remediation. … And it’s interesting how areas that are predominantly African American seem to be left out of the equation — that somehow life [there] is not valued as high as it is in the suburbs.”
In its Dec. 17 announcement, the EPA noted that one in four Black and Hispanic Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site. The release also said the EPA is “committed to carrying out this work in line with President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative by advancing environmental justice and incorporating equity considerations into all aspects of the Superfund cleanup process.”
Clemens said he hopes the new influx of funds can help ensure “things are equitable” going forward. Longtime St. Louis environmental activist Steve Taylor shares some of Clemens’ concerns, telling St. Louis on the Air he thinks there’s much more to be done in a region that has seen “decades of negligence” as well as little transparency.
“There’s a long legacy of contamination in this region,” said Taylor, who now works as the press secretary for the Global Justice Ecology Project. “And EPA wants to get it off the books — wants to get it off the rolls and wants to clean up. But are the cleanups sufficient?”
On Monday’s show, we heard more from Taylor, who joined an on-air conversation alongside Bruce Morrison, president of the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. They discussed some key Superfund sites in the St. Louis region, digging into what cleanups look like and why progress is often slow.
Morrison pointed out that, as important as the newly earmarked Superfund investments are, the 49 sites set for accelerated attention are among more than 1,300 projects across the U.S., including 33 in Missouri and 45 in Illinois.
“And there are projects that aren’t even making it to the list,” the attorney added, “where a responsible party, at least in theory, has agreed to clean something up — and still many more sites that we don’t even know about.”
In Valley Park and Vienna, the remediation of soil contamination is central to the EPA’s cleanup plans.
“In [Vienna], people can’t drink the water without the water getting cleaned up, and the water can’t be cleaned up because the soil is contaminated,” Morrison explained. “The contamination from the soil in both of those sites leeches into the groundwater. So EPA is going to get at the soil issues.”
Taylor said that as important and life-changing as these cleanups are for the people who live near those contaminated areas, there’s so much more to be done.
“If you look at the magnitude and scope of the amount of contamination in Missouri, this really isn't much,” he said. “I mean, we have a radiation fire at West Lake Landfill [where] the cleanup is just dragging on and on. And it wouldn’t be happening in the first place if it wasn’t for citizen agitation and citizen advocacy. So it’s great to have it. But there is a legacy of [what] I would call agency inertia, and citizens have to advocate for themselves.”
The conversation touched on several other sites of concern in the St. Louis area. Take a listen:
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.