Federal Superfund and The Local Community:

When Citizens Disagree About Benefits


Ione Clagett


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is authorized by the federal Superfund statute to address contamination that endangers human health. Often the boundaries of Superfund sites incorporate residential communities and it becomes EPA's obligation to inform residents of the nature and extent of the health risk present at the site and to involve community members in arriving at a remediation plan for reducing the health risk. Some residential Superfund communities disagree among its members whether EPA has established a conclusive case for health risk. Remediation, nonetheless, proceeds on residential home sites while a portion of the residents of those home sites remain unconvinced that the risk is serious enough to warrant a disruptive cleanup procedure.


This paper focuses attention on the Superfund community members who disagree with EPA's risk message; it explores the basis for that stance and, if health risk reduction is not a primary concern, suggests other benefits these residents might perceive coming from a residential Superfund cleanup. Featured is a case history of the Ruston/North Tacoma Study Area, a residential Superfund site adjacent to the ASARCO smelter in Tacoma, Washington. This community did not reach a consensus regarding the degree of risk from contamination left in their yards after decades of smelter operation. While comments taken from public records and those expressed during one-to-one discussions confirm that concern varied about the health risk issue, they also demonstrate that community stigma and property issues were major concerns. These community concerns were expressed early by residents but addressed late by EPA Region 10 on a community-wide basis.


There are many residential communities located within or adjacent to hazardous waste site boundaries scheduled to receive EPA's attention. With or without community consensus on health risk issues, this paper recommends that the agency should anticipate the need, develop a strategy, and take the early lead in addressing these concerns. Community stigma and its effect on real property are standard and predictable worries for residents of Superfund sites, while stigma removal and recovery of property values following a completed remediation are potential benefits over which there is little discord. Both groups--those who agree and those who disagree with EPA's health risk message--could remain as active participants in the process if they were aware of a shared objective.