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Analytical Chemistry Provides Key Answers to Superfund Site Contamination Problems

Workers collect samples from a toxic site.

Workers collect samples from a toxic site

A sign warns of chemical storage.

A sign warns of chemical storage.

Each year, over 80,000 samples from thousands of hazardous waste sites are studied by analytical chemists in laboratories throughout the United States.  These samples generate over 120,000 separate analyses.  The basic questions being answered by these chemists are “What are the contaminants of most concern at each site?” and “What are the levels of these contaminants in their respective media (air, soil, water)?”  The answers to these questions the basis for 1) how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will decide to clean up a particular site and 2) how EPA knows it has reached its cleanup goals at any given site.  A site may have only one primary contaminant or it may have many.  Rigorous analytical tests are the only way to be certain of the scope of the contaminant problem.

Relatively little attention was given to hazardous waste in the United States until several sites made national headlines in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Love Canal in New York and the Valley of the Drums site in Kentucky heightened public awareness of the grave and imminent perils of unregulated hazardous waste dumping in communities.  The results of the chemical analyses conducted at these sites helped prompt the U.S. government to pass the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980.  This law created EPA’s “Superfund” program.  Since its creation in 1980, over 1,500 National Priorities List (NPL) sites have been identified.  These NPL sites are among the worst areas of contamination in the U.S.  Analytical chemistry has played a major role in the identification and cleanup of these sites.

Once identified, a hazardous waste site is evaluated to determine where the contamination is coming from, how much is present, and whether this contamination is significant enough to cause a threat to human health or the environment.  Laboratory analysis of site samples provides vital information for this evaluation.  Then, a remedy (cleanup approach) is selected, designed, and implemented to address the health and environmental risks from the site contamination.  Often the site must be monitored regularly to determine whether the remedy is effective in treating, removing, or containing the identified contamination, and is protective for the community and ecosystem over time.  Laboratory analyses, once again, provide key information to site managers in answering these important questions.

Throughout the entire cleanup process, there is a critical need for laboratory analytical services to support the site-related decisions and monitor the progress of the cleanup, with site managers sometimes requiring laboratory services on a moment’s notice.  With thousands of sampling projects each year (and dozens to thousands of samples requiring analysis for each project), there is an ongoing nationwide need for readily accessible analytical services.  This large amount of ongoing work costs the EPA millions of dollars every year.

The Superfund program created the Contract Laboratory Program (CLP) to meet the analytical chemistry needs of site managers and the communities they serve.  This program provides cost effective analytical services by employing an economy of scale for laboratory analyses; eliminating duplication of effort for procurement, sample tracking, and invoice processing; and offering flexible compilation of analytical results in electronic formats that meet the specific needs of site managers.  Through the CLP, EPA staff have access to a national network of laboratories for the most routinely requested services covering over 173 contaminants in various media (including fish & animal tissue).  At the request of EPA staff, additional contaminants and media can be identified as needed.  On any given day, approximately 350 samples from 10 sites are being delivered to this national laboratory network.  The most commonly requested analyses for contaminants at hazardous waste sites include metals.  Each year since its inception, the CLP has provided data for approximately 500 different sites; since 1999, the CLP has performed nearly 1.2 million environmental analyses at more than 4,600 hazardous waste sites.  Although established initially to support Superfund cleanups, the CLP is also a valued resource for other Federal programs including EPA’s Brownfields, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Corrective Action, Great Lakes Legacy Act, and Office of Water programs, as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) response efforts.

Since data quality is fundamental to the program’s success, each year both scheduled and unscheduled audits of lab performance are conducted, and thousands of automated data review checks are performed routinely on 100% of all analyses for CLP customers.  Once the lab studies are completed and submitted to EPA, initial reports are delivered to customers within 48 hours.

Thus, using the best available analytical science and rigorous adherence to quality assurance procedures, the CLP provides data of known and documented quality to help answer key questions about Superfund site contamination problems and cleanup progress.

Table 1 shows the number of analyses performed in EPA’s CLP from 2004 through 2008:

Fiscal Year

Total Analyses













Table 1: CLP Total Analyses

Table 2 represents the contaminant requests for Fiscal Year 2008:

Pesticides 5%; Volatile Organic Analyses 8%; Aroclors and Trace Volatile Organic Analyses 17%; Base Neutral Acid 12%; Metals 40%; Cyanide 5%; Mercury 13%

Table 2: Contaminant Requests in FY 2008

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