“Garden Pathway” Needed for Toxic Cleanups

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Tuesday, March 15, 2022
Jeff Ruch (510) 213-7028

“Garden Pathway” Needed for Toxic Cleanups

Safe Fruit & Vegetable Cultivation Should Be EPA Remediation Yardstick

Washington, DC — A coalition of 40 public health and community groups is urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to close a major gap in protection for Superfund, brownfield, and other toxic cleanups by requiring remediated sites to be safe for growing fruits and vegetables.

EPA has long included risks from consumption of produce grown in backyard and community gardens and food raised in subsistence agriculture in setting cleanup standards for radioactively contaminated sites but frequently fails to do so for sites polluted by toxic chemicals, resulting in cleanups hundreds of times less protective of public health.

Contaminated sites being cleaned up under Superfund or brownfield programs are supposed to meet remediation levels for all future land use allowed by local zoning. Yet, while growing food in contaminated soil (aka, the “garden pathway”) is included in EPA’s Preliminary Remediation Goal calculators for radionuclides, it is not included in the agency’s Regional Screening Level calculators for toxic chemicals.

As a result, hundreds of polluted sites around the country are not likely remediated to levels sufficient to protect residents. The coalition is asking EPA to remedy this gap by including the garden pathway in setting cleanup standards for all contaminated sites within its jurisdiction.

Although reliance on backyard and community gardens and subsistence farming affect a wide range of people, low-income communities of color, Native American tribes, and rural communities are disproportionately affected by contaminated soils. In addition, disadvantaged communities are often food deserts unserved by supermarkets.

Since the adoption of a particular soil cleanup calculator does not require a new or amended regulation, it is a step that EPA could immediately initiate if it so chose. Moreover, EPA already has a solid base of data on which to build a firm enforceable yardstick, such as consumption rates for many individual types of homegrown fruits and vegetables, as well as soil transfer values for toxic chemicals into various human food crops.

“Because of EPA’s failure to take into account risks from consuming food grown in chemically contaminated soil, hundreds of toxic sites around the country are not being cleaned up to levels that protect residents,” said Jeff Ruch, the Pacific Director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). “We are calling on Carlton Waterhouse, EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator in charge of cleanups nationally, to fix this problem by instituting a project to include the food pathway in chemical cleanups as is done with radioactively contaminated sites.”

The garden pathway also has the advantage of being a cleanup standard that is easily understood by laypeople. On many contaminated sites, community confidence and understanding are hard to win but are key components in any successful EPA remediation.


Read the coalition letter

Look at garden pathway for radionuclides

View selected chemicals with EPA soil uptake factors

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