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In Your Own Backyard: Mapping Communities Near Superfund Sites

Map showing a portion of Passaic, Bergen, and Rockland Counties
The NPL Superfund Footprint Mapper can visualize a rich variety of population and environment characteristics of areas in the vicinity of Superfund sites.

The National Priority List (NPL) Superfund Footprint Mapper is an interactive, online mapping application that can display population and environmental characteristics of the areas surrounding more than 1,700 of the most hazardous waste sites in the United States, designated as Superfund sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Mapper is a clickable map that lets users zoom in and visualize potential environmental exposures and vulnerability risks for populations near specific sites.

The map presented here is one of thousands that can be created using the Mapper.  Users select or de-select checkboxes to access different types of data about populations living around sites throughout the country—education, infant mortality, and potential risk to environmental exposures.  Additional data become available as the user zooms in, providing a more complex picture of the surrounding areas, for example showing schools, watersheds, and wetlands. In addition Census data can be accessed by clicking on specific locations, for example revealing how many women of childbearing age live there.

In order to create the map above, we selected the following data layers: EPA Region 2, one of the nation’s ten EPA regions; a 4-mile “buffer zone” (the area surrounding each site), with detailed data about the inhabitants; shapes delineating the actual footprint of most sites; and estimates of population density.

This map shows how many people in the United States are living near Superfund sites.  We can see a clustering of sites particularly in the Northeast, one of the most heavily populated areas of the United States. One in four Americans lives within four miles of a Superfund site, and some populations are in close proximity to more than one Superfund site. For example, in Santa Clara County in California, located in the heavily-populated San Francisco Bay area, many residents live within four miles of 20 different Superfund sites.

Screen capture showing the number of children enrolled in school within one mile of the Ringwood Mines /Landfill Superfund site, covering an area of Passaic and Bergen Counties (New Jersey) and Rockland and Orange Counties (New York).
Screen capture showing the estimated number of children enrolled in school in 2010 within one mile of the Ringwood Mines/Landfill Superfund site covering an area of Passaic and Bergen Counties (New Jersey) and Rockland and Orange Counties (New York). The polygon to the left delineates the site, which is situated on the Ramapough Mountain Indian Tribe area in Passaic County.

In the screen capture to the right, one can see that more than 300 children were enrolled in school in 2010 within one mile of the Ringwood Mines/Landfill Superfund site, based on data from the U.S. Department of Education. This map could be used to help determine their potential exposure to toxic chemicals and provide insights for other public health assessments.  The image shows an area of Passaic and Bergen Counties in New Jersey, and Rockland and Orange Counties in New York, west of the Hudson River. The largest area of contamination on this map is at the Ringwood Mines/Landfill Superfund site, which is in Passaic County near Ringwood State Park, and situated mostly within the Ramapough Mountain Indian Tribe area. Formerly used by Ford Motor Company’s Mahwah, N.J., facility to dispose of paint sludge and other waste, the site underwent an EPA-directed cleanup by Ford in the mid- to late-1980s. After additional contamination was later revealed, the EPA reinvestigated the site in 2004 and renewed cleanup efforts, which are ongoing today.

The NPL Superfund Footprint: Site, Population, and Environmental Characteristics Mapper permits a wide range of academic researchers, government regulators, and community stakeholders to visualize critical data about the area and inhabitants near Superfund sites, and better assess the vulnerability of affected populations for a variety of applications. Designed by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) as part of the Columbia University Superfund Research Program’s Research Translation Core, the Mapper was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)  as a supplemental grant to the Columbia University Superfund Research Program on the Health Effects and Geochemistry of Arsenic and Manganese (NIEHS 3 P42 ES010349-10). To access the Mapper or learn more, please go to


Development of this month’s blog was led by senior research associate Meredith Golden, who is co-PI of the Research Translation Core for the Columbia University Superfund Research Program, and geographic information specialist Tricia Chai-Onn, in conjunction with senior staff associate Sandra Baptista, geographic information specialist Kytt MacManus, and communications coordinator Elisabeth Sydor.

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