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EcoHeroes: What is a superfund site?

Dr. Kwame Owusu-Daaku speaking at the Kaleidoscope Ð Multiple Perspectives conference hosted by the UWF Office of Equity and Diversity on Thursday, March 28, 2019, in the UWF Conference Center.
Morgan Givens/University of West Florida
Dr. Kwame Owusu-Daaku speaking at the Kaleidoscope Ð Multiple Perspectives conference hosted by the UWF Office of Equity and Diversity on Thursday, March 28, 2019, in the UWF Conference Center.

We're capping 2023 off with a special series of EcoHeroes conversations. In this excerpt, Sarah Jane Brock talks to Dr. Kwame Owusu-Daaku, associate professor and researcher at UWF, about the work behind contaminated sites also known as superfund sites.

Sarah Jane Brock: I'd love to just delve in what is a Superfund site.

Dr. Kwame Owusu-Daaku: So, a superfund site is basically a contaminated land. In the United States, we have what we call a national priority list, where we've categorized lands that are contaminated according to, sort of, the specific types of contaminants and also the level of intensity, just how much is in the soil. And so usually (it) could be in a form of a paper mill or, a paint factory, or even processing some chemicals. And so usually the industries are no longer in operation, but then they've left a legacy of contaminants in the soil. We typically have brownfields and superfund sites, and superfunds are on the higher end of the scale. So, brownfields generally disuse some contamination, but superfunds are usually on the higher end of that contamination scale. Locally, I've worked on two superfund sites. One is on Palafox Street. It's been cleaned up, and so according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), it's ready for reuse locally. Among local government, it's referred to as the Midtown Commerce Park, because that's a vision for the park to sort of develop it into a commerce park. As far as I know, they haven't yet found investors for the site. A conversation that rises and falls, ebbs and flows, because I think ideally, the county would like what they call an anchor, you know, somebody to come in do a lot of the redevelopment, and then maybe rent out plots to smaller retail businesses. So, they haven't yet found that. Another one was within the city of Pensacola is called the American Creosotework site. It's close to Sanders Beach in downtown Pensacola. And for that one, the vision has been more of what they call a passive park. So, to have just a park that people can access. They've engaged more with the residents who live around that, but when you think about a public park, is it only the people who live next to the park who get to say what it should be used for, or is a public park a citywide property? Should all city stakeholders have a say of what gets put on that park? It really gives way to some very interesting debates on what should we use it for and who gets to determine what kind of use it has. I think locally, those are superfund projects I've been involved in.

Sarah Jane Brock: So what does the process look like of cleaning up a site like this? How do you take something where maybe the soil is deeply contaminated and restore it.

Dr. Kwame: It is a complex process. The EPA usually come in and do testing on the front end — just determine exactly what kinds of contaminants on there, even their levels of harm to people. They may be exposed to that, and they may contract even that testing out. They work a lot with contractors, and then, ‘OK we've determined contamination.’ Then we have determined ownership of that site. Typically, especially for superfund sites, the liability is so strong that owners will have to basically give up the site to the federal government so that it can sort of take on that liability and then clean up and then sell it back to a local municipality. There was a story of the Palafox site in Escambia County where, by some weird design, a portion just a few acres of the site, were for an individual owner. It was like, this is my site. I'm going to put my trailer on it. I'm not going to leave. ‘OK fine, here's your liability bill in millions of dollars.’ And they were like, ‘OK, fine.’ So, they had to basically give up ownership, because usually the sites are contaminated that you can't do anything productive with it. Individuals, property owners cannot really take on responsibility for cleanup. And so, the federal government then steps in and says ‘OK, we will clean it up, we'll give it back to the municipality, and then they will decide.’ Then we have to figure out ownership as well. Then we do cleanup. And usually when it comes to soil contamination, some of these contaminants can sit in the ground, like, for really long, and some of them are even not removable once they're put in.

Sarah Jane Brock: Is that something that we would refer to as forever chemicals?

Dr. Kwame: Exactly. In that sense. And so, we would then put a cap on it. Usually, we try to clean up. We sometimes use some aerators or other devices to basically remove as much as we can, but at certain points, they just cap it. And so that's what happened with the Palafox site. And I think that's what also happened with the American Creosote work site in downtown Pensacola. So, we have sealed it. Nobody touch it, nobody puncture it, and then we can then decide to reuse. So, once it's ready for reuse, then usually the municipality would have ownership of it, then the county or the city. And then there is a discussion on what should we use it for. And that's when it gets really messy and differential because sometimes people have been forced to move away, for example, the Escambia site. There used to be a community, a, predominantly African American community that lived around there. They had to be relocated because of the cleanup. It was toxic. They couldn't live there. But now that they've moved away, people have had to go on to other things. Maybe people even have lost their livelihoods because (they) had to move away. When it gets cleaned up, are we going to look for those people again and say, ‘Hey, we're going to give you first dibs on a job’? That typically doesn't happen. And so, there are all these displacements that comes with the cleanup of these sites, and sometimes we don't always think about those things as well as we should.

The interview was conducted and recorded by Sarah Jane Brock. Audio produced by Bob Barrett. The text is condensed and edited.