Not so Superfunded

A status report on the region’s most toxic spots

In response to the massive poisoning of a New York community named Love Canal, Congress passed a sweeping reform law in 1984 designed to clean up the country’s worst toxic-waste sites. The intention of the federal Superfund program was to make polluters pay to clean up their own messes. The system worked, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) collected millions from polluters and undertook the long-term cleanup of hundreds of the most dangerous toxic hot spots in the country.

But those days are over.

In 1995, Congress killed a special tax on the chemical and oil industry that had been used to pay for much of these cleanups. The tax expired, but a massive Superfund trust-fund surplus had been amassed—one that could be used to continue decontamination efforts. But that fund has now been depleted. In 2003—after heavy lobbying from the oil industry and others (including Sacramento’s own Aerojet General Corp., which donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to this lobbying effort)—the Bush administration announced that it would not seek to reauthorize the industry tax and that Superfund cleanups now would be entirely paid for by none other than the American taxpayer.

It’s no surprise, as a result, that the nation has slipped backward when it comes to cleanup of these pestilent sites, despite the fact that one in four Americans lives within four miles of a Superfund spot. A February 2004 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Sierra Club reports that national cleanup of such sites has fallen by 50 percent during the Bush administration, compared with the pace of cleanups between 1997 and 2000.

Here in Sacramento, the availability of funding has become an indisputable factor in how, when and to what extent Superfund cleanups will proceed into the future. Most of the area’s toxic federal sites are located on military bases, and their cleanups are tied to military budgets that maintain a primary focus these days on funding the war on terrorism. (Aerojet—also a federal Superfund site—funds ongoing cleanup at its site and is mentioned in the No. 1 spot on SN&R’s Dirty Dozen list.)

What follows is a status report on our region’s remaining Superfund sites.

McClellan Air Force Base
This facility, located 10 miles northeast of Sacramento, operated and maintained aircraft for the military and managed to create a mighty toxic stew of contaminants in the facility’s soil and groundwater. Active cleanup began in the mid-1980s, but the base’s worst moment came in August 2000, when the discovery was made that radioactive materials had been dumped there, too. Some of the waste drums actually contained glass and plastic bottles found in waste drums featuring labels marked “plutonium.” Thankfully, EPA officials report that 90 percent of the “large-scale evacuation” of that radioactive waste has been completed. Soon after the base was given the Superfund moniker, the government provided an alternative water supply to nearby residents, eliminating the potential for exposure to contaminated drinking water. And the EPA reports that 1 million pounds of solvents have been extracted from soil and groundwater of the base, which was closed in 2001. However, McClellan’s continued cleanup is in some jeopardy because it must be funded out of the annual Air Force budget. The EPA admits on its Web site that funds for the continued cleanup work at this and other military bases has been “seriously impacted” by the costs and priorities of the war on terrorism.

Eight miles northeast of Sacramento near Highway 80.

Frontier Fertilizer
A dog fell into a liquid pit in Davis in 1983 and died of extreme pesticide poisoning. When the veterinarian who treated him reported the fact to the Yolo County Health Department, a poisonous location—Frontier Fertilizer—was first made known. The area was a pesticide-mixing-and-distribution facility where various carcinogenic chemicals— especially dibromoethane and dibromochloropropane (DBCP)—routinely were disposed into basins and tanks. Soil excavation and cleanup were undertaken in the mid-1980s, and the site eventually was labeled a federal Superfund site. A few years ago, a plume of contaminated groundwater was found migrating north of the eight-acre site in East Davis and beneath the nearby Mace Ranch subdivision, whose residents get water from an underground aquifer that the EPA reports is not affected by the plume. Nevertheless, remediation was stepped up, and, according to EPA Site Manager Bonnie Arthur, toxic levels are declining in the nearby neighborhood testing wells. Make no mistake; this site is tiny—both in size and estimated cleanup costs—compared with the military Superfund sites in the region. But Frontier Fertilizer is of special interest these days because it is a so-called orphaned site—one for which the EPA has no potentially responsible party capable of paying for ongoing cleanup. The cleanup of an orphaned Superfund site—like Frontier—must now be paid for (or not) by taxpayers. However, Arthur expresses confidence about the ongoing cleanup for Frontier despite the newly competitive arena for funding, partly because the property is desired for future residential development.

East Davis on Frontage Road near Highway 80.

Mather Air Force Base
Decommissioned in 1993, Mather’s toxic legacy lives on. As with McClellan, much of the 5,845-acre Mather site now has been leased to various entities, primarily the county of Sacramento. But portions of the soil there remain contaminated, and the groundwater below the property contains five plumes containing trichloroethylene and other dangerous and carcinogenic chemicals. Listed on the National Priorities List and dubbed a Superfund site in 1987, Mather, located 12 miles east of Sacramento, is still under active remediation, and an alternative water supply was established long ago for nearby residents.

Twelve miles east of Sacramento near Highway 50.

Laboratory for Energy-Related Health Research (LEHR)
Through the most paranoid days of the Cold War, from the 1950s through the mid-1980s, scientists at the 15-acre LEHR site on the University of California, Davis, campus studied long-term health effects of low-level radiation on laboratory animals, mostly beagles. Funded by the Department of Energy, the infamous “glowing beagle” site became a Superfund spot in 1994. Burial holes and trenches around the campus landfills had been used to get rid of radioactive waste and dead-dog parts. To remedy the situation, more than 100 drums of radioactive “bio-parts” and 40,000 gallons of radioactive-waste sludge were dug up and shipped off-site. Also removed were 3,000 cubic feet of radioactive waste where radium and strontium treatment areas existed. In the late 1990s, a plume of contaminated groundwater was found to be migrating northeast from the LEHR site. Groundwater cleanup related to this plume is ongoing, with government dollars paying most of the bills.

Southwest border of the UC Davis campus.

Sacramento Army Depot
The Depot, established on 485 acres in the Florin-Perkins area in 1945, became a Superfund designee because workers there discharged huge amounts of toxic substances and heavy metals into unlined sewage lagoons or burned and buried them on the property. The Army, which had used the Depot primarily to store and dispose of electronic supplies, has cleaned up much of the soil at the lagoons and pits, but contaminated groundwater continues to require attention as well as funding that may be difficult to procure, given other programs vying for military dollars.

Florin/Perkins area of Sacramento County near Morrison Creek.