7 Super Toxic U.S. Sites

♫ [intro] ♫ This is a beautiful and wonderful world but there are some places that you probably don’t wanna visit. Some of them, called “Superfund Sites” in the US, are contaminated with all kinds of toxic junk which poses a threat to anything living nearby. Currently, there are over one thousand of them. So here are seven toxic sites that are or were being cleaned up by the Superfund program. Let’s begin with the site that started it all: The Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York. This was supposed to become a canal and provide hydroelectric power but the project was abandoned and left a huge hole in the ground. These were byproducts from things like dyes, perfumes, rubber and resin production which are not good for humans or the environment, and are considered hazardous waste. and residents noticed that something smelled… quite toxic. Over the next two decades the buildings were renovated, contaminated soil was moved into more secure landfills and a permanent drain system was installed to collect chemical-filled groundwater, called leachate. The leachate is pumped to an offsite treatment plant and filtered using activated charcoal which is basically just carbon atoms with a bunch of pores between them. These pores allow toxic chemicals, especially carbon-containing ones to bind to the filter, making relatively clean water that can be treated along with normal sewage. The Love Canal site was declared safe as of 2004, but the landfills where they relocated toxic materials are still proven to be environmental challenges. This next site was added to the NPL in 1990, Reed-Kepler Park in west Chicago. It’s a community area and swimming pool that happened to be right next to a landfill where the Rare Earths facility was dumping radioactive waste for 40 years until the early 1970’s. called “mill tailings,” and these radioactive elements are unstable. They emit high energy particles that can knock electrons off of other atoms. This is called ionizing radiation. It’s the kind of radiation that you don’t want to mess with. So, starting in 1997, the contaminated soil and debris was dug up and shipped off to a waste treatment facility, likely to be contained in these engineered chambers called embankments. And you can relax by the pool without worrying about radio active particles. Another notorious site was the Hart Senate office building in Washington D.C. which closed down when 30 employees were infected with anthrax bacteria. In September and October of 2001 letters containing anthrax spores were maliciously sent to congressional leaders and members of the news media. These spores are a form of the bacterium protected by a protein shell which lie dormant until they enter a host, usually inhaled, ingested, or through a scrape on your skin. Then they become active, infectious anthrax bacteria causing severe lesions, flu-like symptoms, and even potentially death. The site cleanup involved fumigation with chlorine dioxide gas which is reactive and steals electrons from molecules. It’s an oxidizing agent and it’s a really good bacteria killer. The EPA also used Sandia decontamination foam which is made from chemicals you can find in stuff around your house. -like in hair conditioner- -like in toothpaste- After a rapid cleanup effort, this site was considered safe again in January 2002. Next up is the Blackburn and Union Privileges site in Walpole, Massachusetts, which was added to the NPL in 1994. It’s been used for industrial and commercial purposes since the 1600s, which generated a huge amount of hazardous waste. These VOCs like some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and benzene could contribute to health problems like eye and throat irritation and liver and kidney damage or even cancer. But that’s not all! At one point the site was used to manufacture brake and clutch parts for cars which involved the fibrous compound asbestos. As we now know, asbestos is really dangerous if it gets inside you. probably a carefully designed landfill. But even today there’s still tons more cleanup to do before the area is considered safe again. Now these Superfund sites can get pretty dangerous, but that does not stop the state of Montana from charging two whole US dollars to view the Berkeley Pit. It used to be a huge copper mine in the 1900s with pumps that removed the ground water so it wouldn’t flood. But once the mine shut down in 1982 the Berkeley Pit started filling up with water. Plus all the heavy metals and toxic chemicals. It’s super acidic because of sulfuric acid from sulfide minerals in the rocky mine tunnels that react with oxygen in the water. And all the metals in the pit give the water some weird colors: brownish-red, probably because of iron compounds and bluish-green thanks to the copper. So definitely not water that you would want to swim in unless you are a specialized microbe. The water is contained in the pit, for now. But if it reaches a critical level, about 1650 meters above sea level, the contamination will seep back into nearby ground water and even into nearby Silver Bow creek. And this would be really bad news, some of the toxic water could even get into the Clark Fork river and make its way down here to where we live in here in Missoula. That plant is undergoing studies, tests, and upgrades to treat water from the Berkeley pit starting in the 2020s, at the latest. making the water less acidic. As the water gets less acidic the metals will start forming sludgy clumps that can be filtered out. In the mean time, the pit water is gradually rising toward the critical level, so we will have to make sure that treatment technologies will be up to the challenge, and fast. Speaking of water, 200 miles of the Hudson river in New York is one of the largest Superfund sites in the country. Between 1947 and 1977, General Electric poured nearly 600,000 kilograms of this group of manmade chemicals into the Hudson river. PCBs are resistant to acids, bases, and heat, so they were used as insulation when electrical devices like transformers and capacitors were being manufactured. But at a huge environmental cost. The PCBs that were dumped built up in river sediments and in organic materials like wood or living things. That’s why you’re not supposed to eat fish from the Hudson, because PCBs are fat soluble and easily stored in their fatty flesh. Between 2009 and 2015 the river was dredged, meaning that mud and PCBs at the bottom of the river were scooped out and moved to a hazardous waste landfill. But cleanup and habitat restoration is still ongoing and the river, sediment, and life nearby will be monitored for years to come. Our last Superfund site is basically every home owners worst nightmare, thanks to CTS of Asheville, a company in North Carolina that made electrical components for car parts and hearing aids. From the 1950s to the 1980s the company was using a solvent called trichloroethylene, or TCE to remove grease from metal parts. A lot of it ended up contaminating the local groundwater which feeds into wells that give water to people’s homes. Since 2012, when the site was officially placed on the NPL, residents have been given water filtration systems. But now most of them use the clean municipal water supply instead of wells. The EPA is also using a technology that essentially vacuums up the TCE from the soil and groundwater called a soil vapor extraction system. But like all these sites, it seems like this cleanup will take a while and require a lot of different technologies. It’s pretty safe to say that we need to be more careful about producing wastes and how we store or decontaminate the most toxic compounds. These Superfund sites can get really bad for the environment and for humans. Our cleanup efforts are improving but in the future we really should avoid making more of these huge, dangerous problems in the first place. Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help support this show, You can go to Patreon.com/SciShow And if you just want to keep getting smarter with us You can go to YouTube.com/SciShow and subscribe. ♫ [outro] ♫