Super Fun Superfund? 13 Reclaimed Toxic Sites

In Montana, children gleefully haul trout out of the water of a river that recently wasn’t able to support life of any kind. New Jersey residents relax once again in a historic but troubled park that shut down for decades due to serious toxic contamination. And in Brooklyn, enthusiastic locals hold dance parties in a district simmering with pollution. Whether officially ‘cleaned up’ by the EPA, still in the process of healing or only just recognized, these 13 Superfund sites have been reclaimed for recreational use – and while some still seem sketchy, it’s encouraging to see that even America’s dirtiest places can sometimes get a clean start.

Dioxin-Displaced Times Beach, Missouri

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One of America’s most notorious Superfund sites has undergone a dramatic transformation from a dioxin-soaked wasteland that was so toxic, the town had to be relocated to a new site, to a beautiful wildlife preserve and national park. Times Beach, Missouri became covered in dioxin when waste oil from a facility used to produce Agent Orange during the Vietnam War was sprayed on the roads to control a dust problem. The town was evacuated in 1985 and about 265,000 tons of contaminated soil and debris was incinerated. That site is now Route 66 State Park, and contains a large grass mound covering the debris of the demolished buildings.

Reed Keppler Aquatic Park, West Chicago, Illinois

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For forty years, residents of West Chicago swam in a public pool and played on fields that were adjacent to and sometimes even covered in radioactive materials. Even more radioactive mill tailings were fenced into a landfill on the property. By the 1990s, it was clear something needed to be done. The site was put on the National Priorities List and was then remediated by the EPA even while the new park complex was under construction. Today, the Reed-Keppler Park includes large family aquatic centers as well as baseball fields, a skate park and green space.

From Fly Ash to Fly Balls at Chisman Creek Park, Virginia

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Not so long ago, ‘Keep Out’ signs discouraged Virginians from exploring what is now Chisman Creek Park, and for good reason – this former Superfund site was once choked with 500,000 tons of toxic fly ash from the nearby Yorktown Power Station. Cleanup began in 1986 to remove heavy metals like arsenic from 27 acres of land, ponds, a tributary stream and the Chisman Creek Estuary and make the area’s groundwater safe to drink again. The EPA’s solution  mostly consisted of a giant clay cap, covering the contaminated area, and relocating a portion of the tributary. The park was built over that cap in 1991 and is home to two softball fields.

Trout Fishing at Silver Bow Creek, Butte, Montana

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The Silver Bow Creek in Butte, Montana was fouled with dangerous mine waste for the better part of a century, resulting in a moonscape-like floodplain that was incapable of supporting life. This wasteland was listed as a Superfund site in 1983 and finally excavated starting in 1999. Cleanup is still underway, but some promising signs of life have appeared, and some portions of the site are considered safe and open for recreational activities like fishing.

Copper Smelter to Old Works Golf Club, Anaconda, Montana

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It’s a startling sight: professional golfer Jack Nicklaus standing in a black pit of mining waste, about to tee off, with the remains of mining operations visible in the background. Anaconda, Montana is just a few miles from Butte and is actually a part of the same Superfund site. It still has a long way to go before it’s totally cleaned up. But one little slice of the contaminated area was turned into the Old Works Golf Course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and built over the site of the Upper Works and Lower Works of the Anaconda Copper smelting operations. The fairways look like many others across the world, but for the sand traps that are filled with black slag, a mining by-product.

Alcyon Lake Park, Pitman, New Jersey

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Alcyon Lake Park has been a popular recreation spot in Pitman, New Jersey since 1895, offering a boardwalk, a bathhouse, merry-go-rounds, daredevil performances, a horse track and other attractions. But thanks to dangerous liquid waste contamination from an adjacent landfill, this 38-acre tract became the EPA’s number one Superfund site, forcing the park to close in 1981. The contamination was so great, some residents worried that they’d never get Alcyon Lake Park back – but after years of cleanup, it was restored to its former glory, reopening in 1999.

Maywood Riverfront Park, California

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The old Pemaco chemical mixing facility on the Los Angeles river in Maywood, California burned to the ground in 1993 but both underground and above-ground barrels and tanks of hazardous substances remained. Upon investigation, the EPA found that the soil and groundwater were contaminated with a rather frightening array of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and it was declared a Superfund site in 1999. The EPA installed a soil treatment system to deal with the mess, and construction on the Maywood Riverfront Park began while the site was still being cleaned. It’s now part of the Los Angeles River Greenway system.

California Gulch Site, Leadville, Colorado

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Strap on your helmet and take in the (hopefully safe, though sulfur-smelling) breeze as you take a bicycle tour of America’s largest Superfund site, California Gulch, in Leadville, Colorado. The site, which occupies the remains of an old mining town, is now home to part of a 12-mile trail and even includes some mining ruins. Even though some radioactive tailings remain, the EPA claims that enough cleanup has been done to consider the California Gulch section of the Mineral Belt Trail safe for recreation.

Dump Site to ‘Sort of Clean’ Park in Saco, Maine

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”I remember when there were open barrels of sludge,” says Brian Espe of the old Saco dump site in Maine where he now spots foxes, wild turkeys and other wildlife on walks with his dog. The 247-acre wooded site was once full of trash and tannery waste, but was covered with a rubber liner to keep the contamination in place beneath soccer fields and other recreation areas. Transformation of the Saco dump site is not yet complete, and it will never be back to normal – in fact, the recreation department can’t even dig into the field to mount goal posts or other structures for fear of puncturing the rubber seal. The EPA says that the athletic fields and other ‘active areas’ are only slightly contaminated, while the more serious contamination can still be found in ‘passive recreation areas’ used for walking and bird watching.

Luminous Processors/McDonalds, Athens, Georgia

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You can say a lot of things about the food at McDonalds, but at least the burgers aren’t radioactive (we think…) – even though one location in Georgia was built on an old Superfund site. The Luminous Processors glow-in-the-dark watch and clock manufacturing plant in Athens left behind seriously contaminated soil when it went out of business in 1980. The one-acre patch of radioactive land was backfilled with clean soil and deemed ‘clean’ in just five months, making way for the McDonalds which was constructed in 1990. The whole process was unusually quick for Superfund sites, which often take decades to resolve.

Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn

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The Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn hasn’t been cleaned up yet. In fact, it was only just named a Superfund site in the summer of 2010. But that designation isn’t stopping local residents from making the most of their neighborhood, for better or worse. Open-air dance parties and dumpster swimming pools are just a few ways that residents show their love for their home despite its many troubles.

“There’s no place in Brooklyn, or in New York City, that feels kind of more pleasant than being right here, which is odd given that that is a toxic waterway,” says Jennifer Prediger. “But it’s actually quite lovely. It’s the loveliest toxic waterway I’ve ever spent time on.”

Koppers ‘Theme Park’ Proposal, Gainesville, Florida

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No, the EPA isn’t really planning to turn the Koppers Superfund site in Gainesville, Florida into a theme park. However, one city resident’s tongue-in-cheek proposal – printed in the Gainesville Sun – makes some interesting suggestions and hints at local frustration over the issue. Here’s a snippet:

“What’s with all the protest over the EPA’s plan for the Koppers Superfund site? With a little imagination we can turn a negative into a positive and build a one-of-a-kind environmental theme park. First, it needs a name, and I propose we name it in honor of Carol Browner, President Obama’s energy and environment czar… We can call it ‘Browner Fields Environmental Park of America’. Like any theme park, it’ll need rides. Climb to the top of Mount Apocalypse and slide down the Slippery Slope! Hop on the Endless Public Hearings merry-go-round! Stay overnight, it won’t kill you. Outright.” Sounds fun.