EPA's Pacific Southwest Region is truly a landscape of contrasts, from pristine watersheds in the Sierra Nevada, to irrigated agricultural lands of California's Central Valley, to sprawling urban and industrial areas inhabited by millions from coast to desert.
Protecting these varied landscapes, and the health of the people who live in them, presents different challenges in each area. In the arid West, mining has brought toxic elements like arsenic and uranium to the surface, and work is needed at some sites to prevent these poisons from polluting the air or water.
In the Pacific Southwest, cleanups usually focus on preventing toxics at old industrial and waste disposal sites from contaminating water supplies and preventing exposure to contaminated soils. In the Pacific Islands, EPA has been cleaning up old munitions, chemicals, and fuel tanks left from when the islands were staging areas for military operations during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. Throughout the Pacific Southwest, EPA works with state, local, and tribal governments to clean up former industrial and tank sites, paving the way for redevelopment that revitalizes communities.
Superfund Cleanups Reach Milestone
Today, construction of cleanup facilities has been completed at over 1,000 sites across the nation.
In the 1970s, Americans learned that toxic waste dumping had despoiled hundreds of sites across the nation, contaminating land and waters both above and below ground. To deal with the problem, Congress passed laws regulating toxic waste disposal, and in late 1980 a law to clean up the worst toxic waste sites, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. It's known as the Superfund law, since it created a fund to pay for cleanups when no viable responsible parties could be found.
EPA works closely with communities, potentially responsible parties, scientists, researchers, contractors, and state, local, tribal, and federal authorities on site cleanup. Together with these groups, EPA's Superfund program identifies hazardous waste sites, conducts investigations to determine the extent of contamination, develops cleanup plans, and cleans up the sites.
Today, construction of cleanup facilities has been completed at over 1,000 sites across the nation. In late 2006, the Pacific Southwest Region reached an important milestone by achieving "construction complete" status at the Indian Bend Wash site in Arizona. The agency has now finished work on cleanup facilities at 50% of the 125 Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) sites in the region.
In addition to making progress in cleaning up NPL sites, EPA has a Superfund Emergency Response program, which mitigates immediate risks at sites that pose an imminent threat to public health or the environment, such as oil and chemical spills. Superfund's Brownfields program, added in the late 1990s, helps communities assess, clean up and redevelop sites where potential contamination hinders redevelopment - such as the hundreds of abandoned gas stations along a once-great highway, Route 66.
Read more about
- Emergency Response
- National Priorities List
- $2.1 million for San Gabriel Valley Superfund site News release
- $200,000 in Brownfields Funding to Revitalize a Garden News release, photos
- Emergency cleanup underway News & photos
- IMMT-Richmond agrees to pay more than $243,000 for spilling oil Press Release
- Superfund site takes action to protect groundwater
- EPA reaches agreement with parties at Motorola 52nd St. Superfund Site News release
Mine Cleanup: A Priority in the West
The Gold Rush of 1848-1849 touched off a mining boom throughout the western states that lasted more than a century, and mining is still a big part of the economy in some areas. But mining also left a legacy of more than 50,000 abandoned mine sites. The vast majority of these pose little or no threat to the environment, but some of them pollute surface waters and groundwater with acid or toxic dissolved metals.
EPA's Pacific Southwest Regional Office is working with the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains offices on a national EPA initiative to address these sites - the Great American West Mining Priority. Cleanups or environmental assessments are already underway at many of the sites. Cleanup activities at some, such as the Iron Mountain Mine and Sulphur Bank Mine in northern California, have been underway for years. Now these actions are picking up momentum across the West. State and tribal agencies have been working with EPA to investigate and prioritize the abandoned mine sites that pose the greatest environmental risks.
In the Pacific Southwest, EPA has stepped up activities at abandoned mercury mines in California, copper mines in Nevada and Arizona, and uranium and copper mines on tribal lands of the Navajo and Tohono O'odham Nations. While long-term cleanup actions are underway at sites on EPA's Superfund National Priorities List, immediate threats to human health and the environment have been addressed by EPA's Superfund Emergency Response program.
Mining and Mercury
Mercury is a highly toxic liquid metal formerly used in gold and silver mining and explosives manufacturing. Mercury itself was mined almost exclusively in the coastal ranges of California, from Lake, Sonoma, and Napa Counties in the north to San Luis Obispo County in the south.
EPA cleanup operations have been underway for more than a decade at Lake County's abandoned Sulphur Bank Mine, on the shore of Clear Lake. In 2006, EPA temporarily relocated 64 residents of the Elem Tribal Community, adjacent to the mine site, to remove arsenic- and mercury-contaminated mine tailings beneath houses, streets, and yards. Five houses had to be demolished, removed, and rebuilt.
On Cache Creek, downstream from Clear Lake, El Paso Natural Gas Corp. began stabilizing slopes to prevent erosion of mercury-contaminated soil and rock at two former mercury mine sites, under an EPA cleanup order. EPA had earlier identified the company as a former owner/operator.
At the Abbot/Turkey Run Mercury Mine site in Lake County, EPA demolished mercury-contaminated smelter structures and cleaned up shining beads and puddles of pure mercury found in and around the buildings. EPA also removed mercury-contaminated materials from the Buena Vista/Klau Mercury Mine site in San Luis Obispo County. Mercury contamination has been found in fish in a reservoir downstream. This mine site has been added to EPA's Superfund National Priorities List, and further assessment of cleanup needs is underway.
Today, gold mining is still a source of mercury pollution. Naturally occurring mercury in gold-bearing ore in Nevada is vaporized and released into the air in the thermal processes used to extract the gold. Over the last five years, EPA and the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP) have been working with gold mining operations to reduce these emissions. In 2005-2006, NDEP developed the nation's first regulations to control air emissions of mercury from mining. Since 2001, Nevada gold mines have reduced mercury emissions by more than 75%.
Cleanup is also underway at the sprawling, abandoned Anaconda Mine near Yerington, Nevada. In 2006, EPA removed electric transformers filled with toxic PCBs, and took action to prevent dispersion of arsenic-contaminated dust and water from evaporation ponds on the site. EPA also provided funding to the Yerington Paiute Tribe, whose lands adjoin the mine site, to test air and water samples for contaminants, and assess potential impacts on tribal lands and residents.
At the Cyprus Tohono Mine, operated by Phelps Dodge on Tohono O'odham land south of Tucson, Arizona, EPA issued an administrative order requiring the company to clean up tailings containing toxic salt and uranium. This site leached uranium into the groundwater and fouled a tribal community's drinking water well. The well was relocated to an area untouched by the contamination. Removal of the salts and tailings is now underway. These wastes are being piled on a plastic pad, which will then be capped so that no water can get in to move the toxics. The work will cost an estimated $18 million.
At the Ironite/Iron King Mine and smelter near Prescott, Arizona, EPA removed arsenic-laden soils from a residential area. At the ASARCO copper mine near Hayden, Arizona, an EPA assessment showed elevated levels of arsenic in some residential areas. EPA is now using funds from ASARCO, under a national agreement with the company, to conduct a remedial investigation and feasibility study of cleanup options.
EPA and the Navajo Nation have identified more than 500 former uranium mine sites on Navajo lands. High on the priority list for further investigation and cleanup is the North East Churchrock Mine. In 2006, EPA issued an administrative order to a responsible party, General Electric/United Nuclear Corp., requiring the company to test soil from 11 areas on the site that may be contaminated with radiation, heavy metals, and spilled fuel. This work is now underway.
Read more about
- Mercury in the Pacific Southwest
- Mercury in Nevada
- Arizona mine clean up News & photos
- Emergency clean up at Yerington, Nev. mine site Press Release
The Route 66 Partnership: Revitalizing the Mother Road
Route 66, stretching from Chicago to Santa Monica, was once such a busy highway that it was known as "America's Main Street." Between the early 1920s and the late 1960s, millions of Americans migrated to California on it. In the 1960s there was even a television drama series about people traveling on Route 66.
But then a freeway was built that bypassed the old two-lane highway and the many towns it passed through, leaving bankrupt gas stations and slowly deteriorating commercial strips. Unseen beneath the old gas pumps lay rusting fuel storage tanks, many of them leaking toxic hydrocarbons into the soil and groundwater. Today, these sites are known as brownfields, because potential contamination hinders redevelopment, particularly in small rural towns with scant financial resources.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) launched the Route 66 Initiative in 2004 to help these small and economically challenged communities address problems at former gas stations and other sites with underground storage tanks (USTs). Through the initiative, ADEQ has coordinated with UST owners and operators, property owners, and local governments to identify and remove abandoned USTs, and speed up cleanups and investigations. By early 2007, more than two dozen site cleanups had been completed.
In late 2005, EPA staff began working with ADEQ to promote the Route 66 Initiative and take the effort to the next level, helping Route 66 communities explore ways to redevelop sites that had been cleaned up or investigated. The initial project area included Winslow, Joseph City, and Holbrook, Arizona.
Less than a year after ADEQ and EPA joined forces to look into redevelopment opportunities in this area, the agencies recruited partners from 20 local, state, and federal agencies and organizations, including the National Park Service, Small Business Administration, the state Departments of Transportation and Commerce, the Route 66 Association of Arizona, and others.
Organizations in the Route 66 Partnership are offering millions of dollars in funding to help communities transform these sites. In January 2006, the partnership held a two-day kickoff meeting to share information and discuss the challenges, options, and possible next steps. Over 60 people attended, creating a network of stakeholders that included government agencies, local news media, businesses, bankers, community members, and UST site owners. EPA followed up by co-sponsoring a Brownfields Grant Workshop in Holbrook in October 2006 and a Community Development Workshop in Flagstaff in March 2007.
Through these efforts by ADEQ and EPA, residents of these communities could see that others, including state and federal agencies, were ready to help them find solutions after decades of struggling with environmental and economic challenges.
Holbrook secured a grant from the Arizona Department of Commerce to conduct a business inventory along the old highway. Winslow received a $96,000 grant from ADEQ for an environmental cleanup at a monument dedicated to the well-known line "Standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona," from a 1970s song by the Eagles. Flagstaff received an EPA brownfields grant to address petroleum-contaminated sites along Route 66 in that city.
Building on these early successes, three other EPA regional offices, covering states from New Mexico to Missouri, have initiated similar projects focused on abandoned gas station sites on other portions of Route 66.
Read more about
- Exploring redevelopment opportunities in Arizona
- $200K Brownfields Grant for Site Assessments News release | Route 66 Partnership
- No bones about it Press release | Brownfields feature story
Indian Bend Wash - Construction Complete
In December 2006, EPA and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality announced that construction of all cleanup facilities at one of the nation's largest groundwater contamination sites has been completed. The 13-square mile Indian Bend Wash (IBW) Superfund site is located in two areas that cover portions of Scottsdale and Tempe.
The two areas, North Indian Bend Wash and South Indian Bend Wash, are separated by the Salt River channel. The two areas have separate, underground plumes of contaminated water. At North Indian Bend Wash, four groundwater pump-and-treat systems have been built to remove the contamination. At South Indian Bend Wash, where the groundwater's contaminant levels are lower, EPA is monitoring 80 groundwater wells. Results show that the contaminants are gradually diminishing naturally, and are expected to reach safe drinking water levels within 15 years.
Across the entire site, contaminated soil close to the surface at four locations has been treated by soil vapor extraction. This process is still underway at two other locations. Construction work on the last of these soil vapor extraction facilities at South Indian Bend Wash was completed in 2006.
Groundwater pump-and-treat facilities at the north site have already cleaned more than 61 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater, enough to meet the household needs of more than 400,000 average-sized homes for a year.
Keith Takata, EPA's Superfund Division director for the Pacific Southwest Region, hailed the culmination of "cooperative effort between EPA, the state, the cities of Scottsdale and Tempe, and numerous companies to ensure that the drinking water is safe for residents."
Work at the site spanned almost the entire history of EPA's Superfund program, which began in 1981. At the time, no one predicted just how complex, costly, and lengthy the effort to clean up the nation's most toxic sites would be. Indian Bend Wash provides a good example of the challenges involved.
In 1981, the City of Scottsdale discovered that its drinking water wells were contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). In 1983, EPA listed the site on its Superfund National Priorities List. The area includes developed land with residential, commercial and industrial uses.
To define the extent of VOC contamination for all of IBW, more than 240 groundwater monitoring wells were drilled, ranging from 140 to 1400 feet below ground surface. Results showed that the area is underlain by three aquifer units layered on top of each other with varying groundwater flow and direction, each with varying degrees of VOC contamination. The contamination resulted from numerous industries in the Scottsdale and Tempe areas disposing of VOCs directly into the ground or dry wells (which drain into the soil) in the 1970s and earlier.
Scottsdale and Tempe rely on groundwater as one of their sources of drinking water. The treatment facilities remove VOCs from the groundwater. The clean, treated groundwater is then blended into drinking water supply systems, discharged to irrigation canals, or re-injected back into the underground aquifer. By 2006, the North IBW system was continuously treating enough water to supply over 50,000 average-sized homes.
The groundwater treatment plants will operate for many years into the future. In most cases, the work has been paid for by the industrial facilities that caused the contamination. However, additional activities have been paid for by federal Superfund money when other funding sources were not available. EPA enforcement staff and attorneys spent years tracking down responsible parties, and securing legally binding commitments from them to pay their fair share for the cleanup, as required by the federal Superfund law. In some cases, litigation was necessary. But the decades-long effort has paid off by restoring clean, safe drinking water sources to Scottsdale and Tempe.
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Strengthening Emergency Response
Steve Calanog may not wear a uniform, but he carries a commanding title. He is one of four EPA Pacific Southwest staff trained to become EPA's incident commander when a disaster strikes.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast, Calanog served four 21-day tours of duty as EPA's Deputy Incident Commander in Louisiana. There, he coordinated the work of 200 to 300 EPA employees from all over the U.S. as they took on a variety of tasks, from rescuing stranded residents to testing drinking water systems in an area as large as West Virginia. Post-disaster reports cited EPA for a job well done.
Calanog came to EPA in 1992 after a stint with the Peace Corps in rural Paraguay, where he worked on improving basic sanitation, learning the local Indian language, and educating the people on how to prevent sewage-borne diseases. Like the locals, he swam in piranha-infested rivers, and emerged unscathed. "They rarely bite," he says, dismissing their fierce reputation as a Hollywood myth.
For the past eight years, Calanog has been one of 17 On-Scene Coordinators in EPA's regional office who respond to oil and chemical spills, as well as floods, earthquakes, and terrorism incidents that could release oil, toxics, radiation, or biological warfare agents. Three years ago, Calanog trained for his incident commander role at the U.S. Forest Service's National Wildland Fire Coordinating Group and the Coast Guard's maritime emergency training center at Yorktown, Virginia. Since then, he has headed an Incident Management Team of ten EPA staff who can be ready to go on a moment's notice when disasters occur anywhere in the U.S. The regional office has three of these teams.
These teams are part of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which coordinates federal agencies responding to terrorism and other emergencies. Calanog participates on an EPA national workgroup that is developing the agency's incident management procedures for major emergencies as well as more routine work. Under NIMS, EPA's Pacific Southwest Regional Office and the U.S. Coast Guard co-lead two geographic response teams that include 15 federal agencies, the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii; and U.S. Pacific Island territories.
Last year, the U.S. State Department called EPA for help in responding to a mercury spill in the Philippine Islands. Some students at a school near Manila had found a vial of mercury in their chemistry lab, played with it, and spread it around the school, poisoning themselves. Three were hospitalized. Calanog headed a four-person EPA team sent in to clean up the school. While there, he briefed top Philippine officials on disaster preparedness, and recommended that mercury be removed from all schools. By the time he left, a bill to do this had been introduced in the national legislature.
"We were treated like celebrities by officials and the news media," says Calanog, whose father came to the U.S. from the Philippines. "But we were just doing our job."