Articles

Superfund Stories and Photographs for America’s 1,300 Most Toxic Sites

Brooke Singer, "Air Station Alameda, Alameda, CA," from Toxic Sites
Brooke Singer, “Air Station Alameda, Alameda, CA,” from Toxic Sites US

There are over 1,300 Superfund sites across the United States, and Toxic Sites US is a photography, video, documentary, data, and storytelling project to humanize those statistics of pollution. Designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as areas of hazardous and toxic contamination in need of clean up, Superfund sites include former military manufacturing centers, lead mining areas, oil refinery waste, and other industrial hazards. What they almost all have in common, from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn to the Naval Air Station Alameda in California, is they are places people live with and alongside.

Profile of the Gowanus Canal on Toxic Sites US (screenshot for Hyperallergic)
Profile of the Gowanus Canal on Toxic Sites US (screenshot for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Toxic Sites US was founded by artist Brooke Singer and is supported by Open Society Foundations. The project was featured this month at the Photoville photography festival in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

“When I was working on the first version of this project in 2007, called Superfund365.org, I was shocked to visit a site for the first time,” Singer told Hyperallergic. “I could not believe how banal and ordinary most of them are. There were very few signs marking the sites, and sometimes I would drive up to find the largest shopping mall in the state or a skate park. The disconnect between what I was reading with what I was seeing was jarring for me.”

Brooke Singer, "Gowanus Canal Brooklyn, NY," from Toxic Sites
Brooke Singer, “Gowanus Canal Brooklyn, NY,” from Toxic Sites US
Brooke Singer, "Quanta Resources, Pittston, PA," from Toxic Sites
Brooke Singer, “Quanta Resources, Pittston, PA,” from Toxic Sites US

After launching Superfund365, Singer traveled around the United States, resulting in a photography series called Sites Unseen. Her photography, as well as that of other contributors, is combined on Toxic Sites US with data visualizations based on the EPA’s CERCLIS data. Each site has its own entry on the site, with information on its history, the parties responsible for its pollution, timelines, health effects from contaminants, and census data on income and race. “Lois Gibbs, the woman who started the Love Canal Homeowners Association in 1978 and compelled President Carter to sign Superfund into law in 1980, once told me you can’t speak about Superfund without speaking about race and class,” Singer explained.

Map of Superfund sites on Toxic Sites US (screenshot for Hyperallergic)
Map of Superfund sites on Toxic Sites US (screenshot for Hyperallergic)

Additionally, Toxic Sites US invites people to add personal stories about living with toxic contamination at the sites. “The contributed media from individuals can keep pace with what is really happening at a site and tell a much broader or more nuanced story than what is contained in just the data,” Singer stated. These details are combined with her photographs, and multimedia features like an interview with an environmental scientist on the Ag Street Landfill in New Orleans, or a photo tour through the Newtown Creek by boat.

“There is nothing like a photograph, or video, to instantly pull a person into a story and linger in the mind,” Singer stated. “A picture is worth a thousand words is a cliché, but still true.”

Toxic Sites US at Photoville (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Toxic Sites US at Photoville (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Toxic Sites at Photoville (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Toxic Sites US at Photoville, with two photographs by Thaddeus Rombauer (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Brooke Singer, "US Radium Corp., East Orange, NJ," from Toxic Sites
Brooke Singer, “US Radium Corp., East Orange, NJ,” from Toxic Sites US

Toxic Sites US is ongoing and accessible online.

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