New hope for long-polluted communities, but skepticism of Superfund success remains

By Barbara Reina and Carey Gillam

Jackie Medcalf was a teenager when she moved with her family to a small farm near the San Jacinto River in Harris County, Texas. It felt like a good life, playing in the river and “eating off the land,” as Medcalf describes it.

But the animals quickly grew ill, as did Medcalf, suffering a range of health problems. Her father developed multiple myeloma at the age of 51. Tests of the family’s well water would later reveal contamination with several toxic metals. Testing of the eggs collected from the family’s chickens also found an array of heavy metals. The family was not alone, as others in the area reported similar problems.

There was little doubt about the source of the contamination: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated the San Jacinto River Waste Pits as a Superfund site due to dumping in the 1960s of waste from a paper mill containing carcinogens and other types of toxins. The site has been on the EPA’s “National Priorities List” for cleanup since 2008. But 14 years later, those efforts have yet to be completed.

“For decades my fellow community members have unknowingly recreated around dioxin laden pits,” said Medcalf, now a 37-year-oldmother and the founder of a nonprofit that advocates for the cleanup of area’s contamination. “How many more decades must pass before this disaster is remedied?”

The suffering of the Medcalf family is but one story among far too many that are emblematic of the struggles behind America’s Superfund program, which aims to clean up sites around the country contaminated with a range of dangerous industrial toxins.

In February, the Biden administration said it was earmarking more than $1 billion to help clean up those long-standing hazardous waste sites that are jeopardizing the health of communities around the country. The money is to go to new and continuing projects, and is part of roughly $3.5 billion allocated in President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for work at Superfund sites.

The new funding was applauded by community advocates around the country, but also was met with some skepticism by those who have been waiting for relief for years, or in many cases, for decades. There are currently more than 1,300 sites around the US on the EPA’s priority list, designated for cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA). But progress has been slow, hindered by a range of bureaucratic hurdles that critics say prioritize politics over public health.