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What Does it Take for an EPA Cleanup?

By Christine Torres

Danger sign on fence near EPA cleanup site

Rotting drums filled with an unknown substance were slowly leaking into the soil, threatening the water supply and air quality of a small New Hampshire community. The chemicals were leaking potentially for decades. North of the Columbia River in Washington, wastewater containing hexavalent chromium was found in a dry well of a former chrome plating operations site. The plant shut down 36 years ago. Tackling environmental nightmares such as these, the Environmental Protection Agency manages the country’s worst contamination cleanup projects to restore them back into sustainable and productive environments through its Superfund Redevelopment Initiative program. Contractors and crews from various industries assist with a bulk of the heavy operations, and fire and other emergency crews may access the work site. With so many professionals on hand for an EPA Superfund cleanup, it’s important to have communication, organization, and safety.

Complex Process

“A Superfund cleanup can get pretty complex,” said Beth Sheldrake, a remediation regional coordinator of EPA Region 10. A Superfund site cleanup can include state and local governments for assessments, construction contractors to remove soil, and other professionals, depending on the removal and remedial work necessary. All Superfund cleanup workers must complete specific training to prepare for the challenges of the tasks. “They are responsible for their own health and safety, but the EPA has an overarching rule to ensure health and safety over the entire project. There are specific policies and procedures that must be followed. EPA staff have the ability to pause or shut down Superfund work not being done correctly.”

This year, the EPA commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Superfund Redevelopment Initiative. Besides the political and legal wrangling that comes with Superfund cleanups, it’s a long, slow process to mop up some of the country’s worst environmental blemishes. Extra care is needed for the health and safety of workers, the environment, and surrounding neighborhoods. For example, the EPA, the state of Washington, and others worked since 1983 to excavate and treat contaminated soils and groundwater. That process took 20 years and $14.5 million. It took an additional 12 years to plan and redevelop the site. In 2018, JH Kelly opened a 65,000-sq. ft. state-of-the-art pipe fabrication facility and a completely remodeled office at the site.

“A challenge with health and safety on a Superfund site is that the project can go on for days, weeks, and years. So the focus on safety can change; people can become complacent, and that’s when – in my experience - accidents can happen,” Sheldrake said.

Commitment to Safety

Construction workers on EPA cleanup siteWhile it’s enough to make safety a priority during any cleanup task, EHS professionals must have a full understanding of the risks involved and how to mitigate them. Site workers often endure heat and cold stress, heavy equipment operation and construction hazards. With the nature of the work and the potential for increasing hazards, air and soil monitoring must be consistent. A thorough cleanup ensures the site is maintaining effective engineering controls, best work practices, and proper personal protective equipment. Safety also includes ensuring signs, labels, and tags provide high visibility and clearly communicate hazardous material information.

“Signage is absolutely critical – for fire safety, traffic safety…” Sheldrake said, emphasizing the importance of keeping visual communication up to date. Communication must include general workers, periodic site workers, emergency crews, and manager and supervisors. “We can’t rely on just signage, but it’s an integral part of HazCom.”

To keep workers’ mindsets on understanding risks and following best practices, Sheldrake says she uses different methods to enhance engagement. She encourages workers to share observations from the prior day in safety talks led by crew safety managers. “During a site safety brief, we go over plans for the day,” she said. “What do we need—do we need new work signs? We cover weather conditions. Importantly, we encourage that free flow of information.”

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