This Map Helps You Find Your Closest Superfund Site

It’s called “Maptivism“: The use of data visually presented on maps to spur discussion about social justice issues from racism to environmental health. ToxicSites, a new project exploring Superfund sites across the U.S., is providing realtime data using open source information from the EPA to inform the public about the location of toxic sites and their current status, from their historical use to their identification as contaminated sites to how far along they are in the cleanup process. Enter your zipcode, and presto — you might be surprised by what you find.

The Superfund program dates to the 1970s, when the government was faced with cleaning up toxic waste sites that owners refused to assume liability for, leaving environmental hazards loose in the environment. Love Canal became the posterchild of the fund, when 82 toxic compounds began entering the environment from a site that had been used as an open dump for decades. Many of these compounds were carcinogens, while others were known teratogens — causing birth defects including anomalies so severe that fetuses couldn’t even survive. Love Canal was located under ground that had been infilled to build a community where people lived and children went to school, and it served as an iconic tragedy that had as much influence as Silent Spring when it came to aggressive environmental regulation.

Today, the EPA has identified upwards of 1,300 Superfund sites in the United States, and they are all at varying stages along the identification, certification, planning and cleanup process. Many, though not all, are concentrated around former industrial sites on the coasts, as well as mines and former military bases scattered across the country. Artist Brooke Singer got interested in the subject, but when she went hunting for her unfriendly local neighborhood waste dump, she found something disturbing: Most sites are discreetly marked, if at all, making it impossible for residents to know that toxic waste is sitting in their neighborhood unless they follow EPA and planning commission news.

ToxicSites flips the tables on this dynamic. Toxic waste can’t hide on the site, which uses an algorithm that incorporates publicly available data from the EPA with Google Maps — a powerful engine for maptivism. Visitors can browse a nationwide map or enter a specific location to find out more about what’s bubbling underground near home, their children’s schools, the local hospital and more. She provides a hazardous ranking score for each site, with more dangerous sites represented by an angry red on the map, while those with less severe pollution are a more mellow yellow. The site’s blog, meanwhile, chronicles the story of many such sites, and along the way it highlights issues like environmental racism and the class divides that arise around the handling of Superfund sites, making for sometimes painful reading.

Maptivism and the powerful Google Earth engine are turning out to be good bedfellows, though not all activists rely on the product. One project, for example, monitors global deforestation. Another project explores park accessibility and how it contributes to activity levels in low-income community, hypothesizing that overall rates of health and wellness may be linked to the number, physical condition and safety of area parks. Another examines nuclear facilities and geological hazards. Projects like these can raise public awareness in a highly accessible and immediate way by presenting information in a familiar, compelling format. A list of toxic waste sites or areas of deforestation is information, but seeing it visually presented can be chilling — knowing and seeing are sometimes not the same thing.

Making such data highly accessible promotes community discussion and activism. By making it easy for people to find toxic sites, for example, the project can spur pressure on government officials to request cleanup of such sites, holding agencies accountable when they neglect their responsibilities to low-income communities and those with a large non-white population.

Photo credit: Corps New England

18 comments

Beryl Ludwig
Beryl L1 years ago

I cannot find any close to me and I know there must be!

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Beryl Ludwig
Beryl L1 years ago

thank you for this.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Anne Moran
Anne Moran2 years ago

It's a shame we need such maps to begin with..

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Donn M.
.2 years ago

I drive past our superfund site almost every day. It is practically right in town. A minor site that has taken years and a ridiculous amount of money to even get started on. That's what happens when government gets involved, waste, waste and more waste.

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Debbie Williamson
Solitary Eagle2 years ago

Thank you.

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Janet B.
Janet B2 years ago

Thanks

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RK Henry
RK R2 years ago

Rocky Flats Superfund, sight of buried plutonium and spills(plutonium-the most deadly element in the universe) allowed housing built up to its borders. Want to purchase a future there?

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Birgit W.
Birgit W2 years ago

Thank you.

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M Quann
M Q2 years ago

Thank you.

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