At the tail end of a groundbreaking wave of environmental legislation, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980. It was designed to investigate and clean up locations contaminated with toxic waste. The Environmental Protection Agency began work immediately, designating places that are dangerous enough to merit federal assistance “Superfund” sites.
Since the law was passed, the EPA has created over 1,600 Superfund sites. The extractive industries that have exploited the rich deposits of resources in the West are responsible for some of the biggest and most toxic sites on the EPA’s list. From copper in Montana and Utah, to silver in Colorado, and Uranium in New Mexico, mining and smelting operations have done untold damage to the environment and endangered local populations. Even though the EPA officially listed many of these Superfund sites almost 40 years ago, the oft delayed clean-up process is constantly mired by politics. When considering the history of these sites and their current state, we must learn to better help those who are ostracized by capitalism’s unrelenting demand for mineral extraction.