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The "Superfund" federal program is the main tool the U.S. government uses to clean up abandoned, highly polluted sites.

Superfund means superbad 

The name "Superfund" is misleading: There's nothing super about this federal program, which is severely underfunded. But right now, it's the main tool the U.S. government uses to clean up abandoned, highly polluted sites.

Getting your neighborhood's abandoned industrial site into the Superfund program is a complex, drawn-out process, but the SparkNotes version is this:

To get on the National Priorities List, which is part of Superfund, a site is scored by federal and state environmental agencies based on the seriousness of the contamination and the risk of it immediately harming the environment or human health. The higher the score, the more likely it is to be placed on the NPL.

The EPA searches for the companies or people responsible for the pollution and then tries to compel them to clean up the sites or reimburse the government for it. However, the government often gets stuck with the bill because the companies have either gone bankrupt or can't be found. Other times, companies sue the feds to dodge responsibility, which can delay the cleanup for years or even decades.

Four Superfund sites in and around the Triangle:

Morrisville

Where is it: At McCrimmon Parkway and Church Street, the site of the former Koppers wood treatment facility is just one mile northwest of Morrisville Town Hall.

What happened: In the 1970s, Koppers used a chemical process on the wood called CELLON. The chemical-laden wastewater was treated in lagoons, then sprayed on the property, and the sludge was mixed in with the soil.

The chemical, pentachlorophenol, can injure the liver, reproductive organs, thyroid and immune system. The EPA has determined the chemical likely causes cancer.

What's next: In the 1980s, the chemical was found in nearby private drinking wells, and the EPA began overseeing a cleanup of the soil and groundwater. Affected residents' homes also were connected to the town water supply. The groundwater is still being cleaned up and monitored. The next report is due in 2012.

Raleigh

Where is it: Many planes taking off and landing at RDU fly over Ward Transformer, 6720 Mt. Herman Road, which rebuilt, bought and sold electrical equipment for more than 40 years.

What happened: Electrical transformers often contained PCBs—their production was eventually banned in the U.S. in 1974—which can cause cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems. At Ward, PCBs leaked and/or were dumped onto the ground, contaminating soil, groundwater and surface water.

What's next: Elevated PCB levels have been detected in streambeds and fish downstream of Ward. The state has banned the eating of any fish from Brier Creek Reservoir, Brier Creek and Little Brier Creek—and has advised people to limit eating fish from Lake Crabtree and Crabtree Creek.

Although an estimated 400,000 tons of tainted material has been hauled away, contamination remains at the site and could still be affecting the fish and waterways downstream. The EPA is still considering options to eliminate the contamination.

Roxboro

Where is it: The EPA believes GMH Electronics (previously known as Halifax Road/Virgilina Road DCE) and a former gas station are sources of contamination found in residents' wells near Highway 49 northeast of town.

What happened: Contaminants were spilled, leaked or dumped over the years. Some contaminants, including benzene, can cause cancer, depending on the level and length of exposure. Other contaminants can also harm the liver, kidneys and nervous system.

What's next: Although 50 homes will be connected to the town's water supply, until the lines are built, the EPA has provided bottled water to 13 homes where contamination was above federal drinking water standards. Last year, Person County contractors began building the water lines, but construction is not expected to be finished until September. Federal stimulus money is funding the construction. About 50 households are waiting to be connected to Roxboro's public water system after the EPA found chemical contamination in private drinking wells.

Selma

Where is it: Located on East Preston Street, the 103-acre Gurley Pesticide Burial is as bad as it sounds.

What happened: It produced and/ or distributed pesticides and in the 1970s placed the material in barrels and buried them. Over time, the soil and groundwater became contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals, and other toxic compounds.

What's next: Although two years ago 39,000 tons of soil were excavated and shipped to a hazardous waste landfill, the soil and groundwater is still considered contaminated. The EPA is requiring more groundwater studies to determine how to remove the contamination.

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