America's Nastiest Toxic Waste Dumps (And Whether Or Not You Live Near One)

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Superfund is both an actual fund and a shorthand term for the list of America's nastiest toxic waste sites. One in two Americans lives within ten miles of a Superfund site. Currently, there are about 1,300 sites on the list, although it fluctuates. New Jersey has the most Superfund sites, with over a hundred. Nevada and the District of Columbia have one apiece. Here's a closer look at some of the notable ones.

Love Canal

Love Canal is the granddaddy of Superfund sites. It started out as a gleam in the eye of a developer named William Love. In 1892, Love proposed a seven-mile canal around Niagara Falls. Like any good developer, he named the project after himself.

Love had to abandon his plan after digging only one mile of the canal. Locals swam and fished in the canal while chemical manufacturers used it as a landfill. In 1953, with the canal full of toxic waste, it was capped. But later developers ignored warnings and eventually built houses, schools and playing fields over the abandoned canal. Predictably, residents started getting sick, and in 1978, Love Canal was declared the first federal disaster area created by a man-made disaster. The government ultimately bought out the homes of 278 families.

Spurred by Love Canal, Congress levied a special tax on oil and chemical companies to clean up such sites. It raised $1.8 billion—plenty, they assumed, to clean up all the toxic waste in the country. But as more and more toxic sites were identified—at one point, 30,000 were nominated—and as Love Canal recedes into memory, funds have dwindled.

Picher, Oklahoma

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One present-day Love Canal is in Picher, Oklahoma, which was once a boomtown for mining lead and zinc. Pollution has killed off many of the trees, and huge piles of mine debris create a stark, lunar landscape in the Oklahoma countryside. With the entire town on the verge of collapse due to unstable mineshafts, Uncle Sam has offered to buy out the homes of all Picher's residents. Still, some are staying out of loyalty to their hometown. [Photo courtesy of Red Fork State of Mind.]

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor contains a Superfund site. Actually, it contains 30 hazardous waste sites where stuff has been dumped or spilled over the years: mercury-contaminated sediments dredged from the harbor, waste oil, leaking landfills, you name it.

Anniston, Alabama

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Though New Jersey has the most Superfund sites, the most polluted place in the nation may be Anniston, Alabama, where Monsanto ran a huge chemical manufacturing plant. The company paid out $700 million to residents in 2003.

The Cleanup

What does it take to clean up a Superfund site? It involves removing a lot of dirt—contaminated dirt, that is. It's often trickier than it sounds, though. Sometimes the dirt you have to remove is at the bottom of a river, for instance. That's the case at the Kalamazoo River Superfund site in Michigan. The project has a cool website where you can look at pictures of the work in progress.

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If you think those yellow haz-mat suits are very fashion forward, then working at a Superfund site might be a perfect job for you. The EPA compiled a photograph archive of some of the chicest rubber suits ever, modeled at some world-class dumps. There's also a picture of a fish with a tumor (above).

To find sites near you by zip code, use the Pollution Locator.

Chris Weber is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com.

January 14, 2008 - 6:08am
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