The Anatomy Of Environmental Failure

How long should it take to clean up toxic chemicals after they are spilled?  A week, a month, a year, 5 years? The answer is: “decades, usually.”  Worse, oftentimes, the answer: is “the chemicals will never be all cleaned up”. It’s scary and sad.  But it’s true. Here’s a recent example of a community in the State of New Jersey, where it has taken 53 years after the spilling— not to clean up the chemicals, mind you, but just to create a plan to try to clean them up: On August 23, 2013, the United States Environmental Protection Agency announced a plan to spend $19 million to clean up chemicals first spilled in 1960 by a now-defunct dry cleaner in Wall Township, New Jersey. [see the full article here.]  After being spilled (and they were spilled probably over three decades), the chemicals were allowed to seep into the ground, infiltrate the groundwater aquifer below, and spread out so that the area of contamination is now one mile wide, and two miles long.  This contamination runs in the groundwater underneath homes and business, and releases a toxic vapor that has slipped into the air of some of those structures, requiring that special systems be installed to try to minimize the impact of the vapors that are invading the homes. Here’s the disturbing chronology, documenting how 53 years went by, and yet all we have today is a plan to clean up: 1960: the dry cleaner likely starts spilling chemicals, probably right out the back door 1990: testing of the water in area wells shows high levels of contamination 1997: the local health department learns of the test results 1999: testing begins for the presence of the toxic chemicals in the municipal water well, and in the air inside homes and businesses 2004: the site is entered on the “Superfund” list, marking it as one of the most contaminated sites in the country 2013:  EPA announces a plan to clean up the chemicals And please understand:  the “planned” clean-up, announced just a few days ago, has yet to start.  After it does start, it will probably go on for 20-25 years or more. And–here’s the truly galling part–there is no way that the clean-up will get all of the contamination out of the environment.  Much of what was spilled is now so deeply embedded below the surface, and in the groundwater, that it will never be “all cleaned up”. It took 39 years after the first chemical spilling for the government to do any testing. It took 14 years after those first tests to develop a plan to clean up the chemicals. 75 years after the chemicals were first spilled, they will still not be “all cleaned up”. As bad as this sounds, it is not just a terrible story.  It is a typical story. Typical.

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