Is Your Dream Home on a Superfund Site?
Love Canal was one of the most disastrous real estate stories in American history, but few people under the age of 50 have even heard the name. Originally a site for a community in the early 1900s, a canal was built to generate electricity for the community, and later became a chemical waste landfill in the 1920s when the residential plans were abandoned. Once the canal was filled with chemical waste, Hooker Chemical Company, the site owner, covered it with earth. They then sold the land to the city for one dollar in 1953. By the late 50’s more than 100 homes and a school were built on the site, and Love Canal became a working-class community again. For almost two decades hundreds of families enjoyed the neighborhood.
By the late 70’s however, the chemical waste beneath the soil began to leach into homes and yards, causing illnesses, birth defects and worse. More than 220 families eventually moved out of the area, and the land was labeled a toxic waste site. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a Superfund program in 1980 to investigate and clean up hazardous waste sites. Love Canal was be the first of thousands of sites that became projects this agency handles.
Eckardt C. Beck, administrator for the EPA at the time, said that the same thing that happened at Love Canal is still happening and could happen again. So how can buyers ensure their dream home isn’t sitting on a toxic, Superfund, or EPA cleanup site? It starts by doing due diligence before buying a home, or land, on which to build on.
What is a Superfund site?
A Superfund or toxic site is land or water designated as potentially hazardous to human health and/or the environment. The Superfund program is a government effort to clean up land that deemed to be contaminated by hazardous waste and has been identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup. Whether it is called a Superfund, EPA cleanup, or toxic site, it is contained under the Federal Superfund Program as land or water sites that are potentially hazardous.
These sites are placed on the National Priorities List (NPL), which categorizes sites in one of four ways:
- Proposed: Site proposed (by the EPA, the state, or concerned citizens) for addition to the NPL due to contamination by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.
- Withdrawn: Site removed from the NPL because EPA has determined that it poses no real or potential threat to human health and/or the environment.
- Final: Site determined to pose a real or potential threat to human health and the environment after completion of screening and public solicitation of comments about the proposed site.
- Deleted: Site deleted from the NPL by the EPA (with state concurrence) because cleanup goals have been met and no further response is necessary at the site.
Are all Superfund sites dangerous?
Yes, and no. The EPA deems many areas as “safe” after cleanup goals are met, such as removing all contaminated earth or pollutants. The EPA’s risk assessment guide says that many areas that have been cleaned up pose “little” risk. For humans, this is a level at which ill health effects are unlikely, and the probability of cancer is small. To determine if the house or land on which you plan to buy or build is on a Superfund site, email Erasc.Ecology@epa.gov or call 513-569-7940 or visit the Ecological Risk Assessment Support Center’s (ERASC) website.
How to find out if your home, or land, is on a contaminated site
Homeowners can find out if a property is on a Superfund site by going to the EPA’s website and searching in their state. The EPA database has over 1,000 sites listed as of this date.
Should I buy land or property on a Superfund site?
Yes and no. In other words, “it depends.” Many Superfund sites are in great locations. The majority of sites the Superfund has cleaned are deemed safe for many types of reuse, such as manufacturing, shopping malls, and office complexes, but aren’t safe for residential use. There are state, federal, and local government agencies offering grants, loans, and tax incentives to encourage development and building on formerly contaminated properties. For more information on before buying a cleaned-up Superfund site, see their list of 10 Questions to Ask before buying Superfund land.
Just as when you purchase any real estate, it’s always a good idea to investigate its history, prior owners, and status of the land and surrounding areas which might leach, or have leached, onto the property. And, for about $45 to $100 you can also have the soil tested before you buy.
This is especially important if you’re buying land in an area where old manufacturing plants once were. The land may not be listed on the EPA’s Superfund site, but could still be toxic. Lead in the soil of areas surrounding old manufacturing plants have been shown to be 25 times higher than the EPA deems safe. Testing your soil is a good idea for homeowners who plan to start a garden, farmers, or if you plan to have children and pets running around outdoors.
Knowing the history of your home or plot of land is part of your duty to ensure the safety of your family and loved ones.