The Problem with Hazardous Waste Sites

Hazardous waste sites threaten the health of communities and the safety of water supplies across New England. More than 10,000 hazardous waste sites dot New England’s landscape. In Massachusetts alone, more than a third of the towns have lost all or parts of their drinking water to toxic contamination. These sites are the result of more than a century of irresponsible and illegal handling of toxic chemicals. Sites range from gas stations, like in Clarendon, Vermont, whose leaking underground storage tanks have contaminated water supplies to the General Electric site in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which has contaminated whole parts of the city and the Housatonic River all the way down to Connecticut.

Environmental Problems

The longer hazardous waste, in the form of petroleum projects, such as MTBE, volatile organic compounds and PCB’s, remain in the ground, the farther it is going to spread. These chemicals can persistent in the environment for decades if not longer. Both environmental degradation and clean up costs rise dramatically the longer cleanups are delayed. Hazardous waste sites can pollute rivers and drinking water supplies as well as harm wildlife.

Public Health Problems

The most common public health threat hazardous waste poses is the contamination of our drinking water supplies. In Woburn, contaminated drinking water caused a cluster of leukemia cases in children. Contaminated soil also poses a problem. At Love Canal, toxins oozing out of the dump caused rashes, burns and other problems to both children and adults coming in contact with it. Toxins can also seep into buildings built above hazardous waste sites, causing indoor air problems, respiratory diseases and chemical sensitivity. Hundreds of people across New England are trapped in their contaminated homes waiting for the polluters or the environmental agencies to cleanup the contamination. The experience of living in a contaminated home not only ends normal life, but also can cause serious psychological illnesses.

Polluters Attempt To Avoid Responsibility

The costs of cleaning up the sites can be great. Polluters often try to get out from their responsibility to pay for the cleanups or opt for minimal cleanups to save money. At the federal level, polluters have successfully rolled back the tax on toxic chemicals, effectively drying up Superfund, the national hazardous cleanup program.

Cleanup programs in the states are weak as they lack the funds and the aggressiveness to force polluters to clean up their sites. In MA and CT, the hazardous waste cleanup programs are privatized. Licensed site professionals are contracted out to oversee the hazardous waste site with minimal oversight by the state. This can often lead to a “fox guarding the hen house” effect, where polluters are paying for the oversight of their own pollution.


Brownfield is another name for a toxic waste site on which someone wants to develop. With space at a scarcity, toxics waste sites are often targets for new business developments, public house, and schools. Relaxed cleanup standards at brownfield sites compromise public health and safety. The best uses for a brownfield are an industrial operation, or commercial site that doesn’t involve children, or contact with the soil.

The Solution – Strictest Possible Cleanups and Toxic Use Reduction

In order to eliminate the threat that releases of petroleum products and hazardous chemicals pose to human health and the environment, all hazardous waste sites should be cleaned up to the strictest level possible. In order to prevent the creation of new hazardous waste sites, toxic chemicals need to be phased out in favor of safe alternatives.

  • Toxic Use Reduction Halting the manufacturing of bio-accumulative toxins decreases the amount of harmful chemicals used by industries and sold on store shelves today, thus reducing their impact on health and the environment. By adopting safer technologies companies can reduce hazardous waste to stop exposure at the source. An example is a closed loop system where industries recycle chemicals within their manufacturing process.
  • Polluter Pays. Any and all responsible parties to pollution should pay for the clean up of hazardous waste sites. Any companies that use or handle toxic chemicals should pay a tax to fund future cleanups.
  • Strict Timelines And Precautionary Cleanup Standards. The cleanup of hazardous waste sites should be as quick and as strict as possible to reduce human exposure to toxic chemicals.
  • Citizen Involvement. Local residents, those most affected by toxic pollution, should be included in the cleanup process. Technical assistance grants should be made available to residents so they can have access to and interpret data and cleanup standards.
  • Prioritize The Worst Sites. States should prioritize sites that pose the largest risk to public health ensure that there is adequate funding and aggressive deadlines to ensure the worst sites are cleaned up without delay.
  • Permanent Cleanup Over Temporary Cleanup. When possible, toxic chemicals should be removed from our communities and permanently cleaned up rather than covered over or capped.