By Kennedi Hewitt and Alexis Durham
Glenn Ross is a self-proclaimed urban environmentalist. For 40 years, the 71-year-old has fought to make his Baltimore community a safer place for his children and neighbors by educating others on the reality of Superfunds.
A Superfund, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is a contaminated site “due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed.” Such sites include landfills and mining sites.
Officially titled “Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act” (CERCLA), Superfunds were established by Congress in the 1980s after the Love Canal and Valley of the Drums sites gained national attention due to the risks they posed to humans and the environment.
Superfunds are located near communities of color at a higher rate than white communities. According to a 2016 study published in Environmental Research Letters, race is the biggest indicator in the U.S. of whether you live near toxic waste.
As seen in the Love Canal and Valley of the Drums sites, these contaminated sites have a history of allegedly making people ill or causing birth defects due to residents’ proximity to unmanaged toxic waste. Hence Ross’ concern over his family and neighbors’ health in Baltimore.
“Once I got custody of my kids, I had to change my life,” said Ross.
For decades Ross has led tours of toxic waste sites and abandoned contaminated land, primarily to university students, hoping to spread awareness of the environmental hazards that threaten Baltimore residents’ health.
According to Ross, the EPA has recorded only two Superfund sites in the city: one site is a waste disposal area near Lombard Street and the other is a dump site in Dundalk. However, Ross believes that he has found more than 19 in east Baltimore left unaccounted for.
Neglecting these sites can result in a release of dangerous toxins such as carcinogens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Examples of VOCs include
: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, butane, propane and many others.
According to the CMM Group, these chemicals have harmful effects on the environment as well as the climate. Methane, the second the most prominent greenhouse gas, is often released into the atmosphere with VOCs, further contributing to global warming.
Additionally, VOCs coexisting with water when they are released into the atmosphere can result in acid rain. This can also lead to food scarcity because many fish are unable to survive in an acidic ecosystem. When exposed to VOCs, one can develop health issues such as nausea, headaches, irritation in the skin and discomfort within the nose and throat.
Across the country in Torrance, Calif., a small city within the boundaries of LA County, the proximity between human life and toxic waste mimics what’s happening in Baltimore.
On one side of Del Amo Boulevard is a condominium decorated with flower shrubs and healthy grass. On the other side of the street is the Del Amo Superfund site, where wired fences and various caution signs entrap hazardous chemicals such as trichloroethylene and benzene.
But these fences and warning signs don’t make neighbors feel safer. Concerns over extreme weather caused by climate change and its impact on superfund sites have caused worry for many residents within recent years. Disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes or tornados, have the potential to flood or disrupt these sites and unearth the very chemicals the EPA has been working to dispose of.
Still, according to the EPA, residents need not worry. Michael Alpern, the director of public affairs for the Pacific Southwest region for the EPA said that the cleanup measures for each site differ by state.
And in the event of a disaster such as flooding or an earthquake there are “‘auto shut down
’ mechanisms that ensure that in the event of a natural disaster, the equipment is turned off and valves/blowers are shut down.”
The Del Amo site – where toxic waste contaminated ground water – recently hosted their biannual open house, where they aim to inform residents of recent progress and goals for the site.
In the meeting, they explained the layout of the site and its various operable units (OU). According to the EPA, Superfund sites are often broken into smaller parts, the OUs, in order to make the cleanup plan more concise and manageable.
“EPA’s overriding objective is to ensure a site is deemed safe and that public or private use does not compromise or adversely affect the remedy,” said Alpern.
Alpern says the EPA’s goal is to clean these sites and restore them for “productive use.” After the sites are deemed safe and hazard-free, it’s up to local residents to determine how they want the land to be used moving forward.
Despite the EPA’s efforts, Ross believes more needs to be done to protect his community and other communities alike. He works closely with his community members as well as local college students to empower them to spread awareness and demand the government do more to protect Baltimore and their respective homes.