What it’s like to clean up a Superfund site, and how it moves forward

Part one of this story on brownfields and Superfunds focused on defining what they were, and how they’re harmful to surrounding communities. But how does a Superfund get cleaned up, and what does it look like after?

Wyatt Loy

At a small intersection in the Village of Copley is a gas station, a restaurant, some houses and a car parts store. If you were just passing through you might not even guess this is a Superfund site. The Copley Square Plaza hosted dry cleaning businesses under different owners between the 1960s and the early 1990s. Those businesses dumped the dry cleaning chemicals into concrete holding tanks.

This is a Google StreetView of the Car Parts Warehouse located on top of the Copley Square Plaza Superfund.

“There were some complaints of water odor issued to both the county health department and then eventually the state of Ohio,” said EPA Superfund Project Manager Margaret Gielniewski. “Those complaints made their way to the EPA, so there was an investigation.”

EPA tested nearby private wells and found dry cleaning byproducts in the drinking water of nine households. Cleaning chemicals out of groundwater takes years to do, and the pollution can spread beyond the original site.

“We did close up those wastewater tanks that were at the back of the dry cleaning facility, the wastewater tanks have water, but mixed with dry cleaning chemicals, which are very toxic,” said Gielniewski. “We ended up pumping those out, closed those wastewater bins, filling them in with concrete, but those tanks already had cracks.”

To catch any runaway contaminants, EPA installed a drainage system to ensure the groundwater aquifers won’t be polluted further. After that, it installed well water filtration systems in the nine affected houses and changed the filters for about 15 years before EPA connected the houses to Akron’s city water.

“After that, the very first action that we took is we investigated vapor intrusion,” Gielniewski said. “What happens is, the groundwater can turn to a gas and build up under the slab of the house, and if there’s any cracks in the slab, there’s an opportunity to breathe in that polluted groundwater.”

This is the back lot of the Copley site, overgrown with grass and pecked at by the occasional crow. To the right is the car parts store and facing the road is Rizzi’s Italian restaurant. Photo by Wyatt Loy

EPA installed vapor mitigation systems to counteract this. However, every three months they sample the groundwater and give the results to the homeowners so they can be aware of how the chemicals degrade over time.

That’s just one part of an intensive process to get the community’s input and inclusion in the cleanup. Every Superfund cleanup plan has to set aside time to take residents’ questions.

“We really put our finger on the pulse of the community of whether they’re interested in attending meetings or not,” Gielniewski said. “People with young families, which is a lot of what we’re seeing here, or people that work long hours, are not necessarily interested in attending an hour or an hour and a half meeting you know, during dinner time.

“I’m happy to answer questions that anybody has at any time. And also appreciative of the opportunity to be a good steward of environment, and help with the cleanup happening in this neighborhood.”

About 40 miles away from Copley Square Plaza is another Superfund site: Summit National in Deerfield township.

“It was a former coal strip mine, and it was used as a waste disposal facility, including liquid waste, which were drums and tanks,” said Remedial Project Manager Mitchell Latta. “There was an open pit at the site, and there was also an incinerator on the site, and the waste that was shipped to this place was burned and incinerated. That’s what caused kind of the initial concern from the community. They put together a group that was concerned with air pollution.”

After a lawsuit filed by the citizen group in the 1970s, the EPA got wind of what was happening and took over. They held 14 companies accountable as Potentially Responsible Parties and, according to Latta, they not only paid for the initial cleanup but continue to be held financially liable for general landscaping, upkeep and data collection of the site.

“My job at this site is I oversee the PRP’s management of monitoring and everything, and just make sure that they’re living up to their agreements as defined in the site related decision documents,” Latta said. “It’s kind of long term monitoring and cleanup at this point for this site, so a lot of the remedy for Summit National was primarily excavation, so they went in there and they removed oil drums, they removed tanks, and a lot of the infrastructure that was on the site.”

This is standard operating procedure for the Superfund program. While most of the Superfund sites have already been cleaned up in decades passed, anytime a new one comes up the process is to cleanup the pollutants actively at risk of harming the community, and make sure the site is stable and safe for future generations. During the five-year reviews of Summit National, the EPA sets up times for the community to ask questions just as they would with other Superfunds.

Copley Square Plaza and Summit National may be remediated, and the communities surrounding them may never have to deal with dry cleaning chemicals in their drinking water or plumes of garbage-smoke filling the skies above their homes, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the country is safe from the lasting effects of Superfund sites. States like Massachusetts still have huge problems with inadequately managed toxic waste sites. With the right funding, the EPA could do what it’s done here for the remaining Superfunds, but it remains to be seen whether these strategies will be replicated elsewhere.

The future of Copley and Deerfield’s Superfunds, on the other hand, is entirely in the hands of their respective communities. Both Latta and Gielniewski say local businesses and municipal governments get to decide how they develop that land, whether to put shops, services or houses on it.

“Whoever owns those properties is kind of the master of their own destiny. So there have been multiple businesses since the dry cleaners,” Gielniewski said. “Now it’s Car Parts Warehouse, as far as I know, but before that it was actually a brewery. And then it was a secondhand store. So there’s been multiple uses of the property, and it’s really just based on like, what the community needs at the time and how well the store does.”