Nuclear Waste scars the landscape outside the Midvale Smelter in Utah.
Sharon Steel Corp. (Midvale Smelter), Midvale, Utah, 1986 David Hanson

David Hanson’s work from the 1980s shows industrial damage to the American landscape that may never heal.

There are currently 40,000 EPA-monitored toxic waste sites that blot the landscape across the United States. Nearly 900 are regulated under its “Superfund” program, which aims to clean contaminated sites.

That’s the subject of a Waste Land, a new book that comes out September 25th. In the late 1980s, photographer David Hanson traveled to 67 of these Superfund sites to capture the deep scars they have placed on the landscape. The resulting exhibit showed some of the more dramatic examples.

Bridgeport Rental & Oil Services, Bridgeport, New Jersey, 1986 (David Hanson)

The book, however, is the first time Hanson’s entire set of photos is being published in one place. “When all 67 of the Superfund sites in my Waste Land series are seen together, they begin to have a cumulative effect,” Hanson writes in an email to CityLab.

Atlas Asbestos Mine, Fresno County, California, 1985

Another reason Hanson thinks it’s important to publish the full set now—30 years after he first took the photos—is that not much has changed.

The EPA claims a few success stories through the Superfund program, like in California Gulch, where a recreation area and park sit where mining waste once destroyed the landscape.

California Gulch, Leadville, Colorado, 1986

But Hanson claims that most Superfund sites are too contaminated to ever be completely clean. The requisite technology doesn’t exist. But even if it does, he notes, it would be too expensive for government officials to use.

The photographer mentions Rocky Flats Park as an example. Health officials insist that plutonium levels in the park are safe, but others aren’t convinced.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will cut the ribbon on the Rocky Flats Park and Wildlife Refuge this month. Twenty miles northwest of Denver, the refuge sits on land that once housed a Cold War-era plutonium trigger plant. A group of activists wants to keep the park shut, saying that visitors will kick up plutonium-contaminated dust that could raise cancer risks for the entire region. A lawsuit filed by activists claims that EPA officials skipped a key study on plutonium exposure. Meanwhile, crews in Idaho responsible for cleaning a nuclear waste site just resumed work after radioactive sludge oozing started oozing out of a ruptured drum. Years ago, that drum arrived from Rocky Flats Park.

Smuggler Mountain, Aspen, Colorado, 1986

This mistrust with government officials over the safety of nuclear sites dates back years. One of Hanson’s goals is to point that out through his work.

Each page of the book contains a triptych with an aerial photograph, the EPA’s description of the site, and a map that shows the site’s exact location and proximity to humans.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Adams County, Colorado, 1986

The idea, Hanson says, is to “illustrate the bureaucratic nature of hazardous waste regulation and reveal some of the elaborate legal strategies that corporations and individuals have used to avoid responsibility for the contamination and the cleanup.”

Northwest 58th Street Landfill, Hialeah, Florida, 1986

The photographer thinks Superfund sites aren’t going anywhere. With a half life of 24,000* years (and dangerous for up to 250,000 years), Plutonium could be mankind’s most permanent legacy.  Says Hanson, “These poisoned landscapes are tragic monuments to our carelessness, greed, and deceit.”

Correction: A previous version of this story listed Plutonium’s half life as 250,000 years.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. A photo of a small small house in San Francisco's Noe Valley that sold for $1.8 million in 2014.
    Equity

    Why Cities Must Tackle Single-Family Zoning

    As cities wake up to their housing crises, the problems with single-family-home residential zoning will become too egregious to ignore.

  3. A man walks his dog on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco in the early morning hours on Mount Davidson.
    Equity

    When Millennials Battle Boomers Over Housing

    In Generation Priced Out, Randy Shaw examines how Boomers have blocked affordable housing in urban neighborhoods, leaving Millennial homebuyers in the lurch.

  4. A view of the Eiffel tower and the Paris skyline.
    Transportation

    Cities Around Paris Strike a Rare Agreement to Ban Diesel Cars

    France’s most comprehensive car ban marks an important moment of cooperation for oft-quarreling municipalities.

  5. Columbia University's Low Library
    Design

    Rediscover the Gilded Age’s Most Famous Architects

    McKim, Mead & White, Selected Works 1879-1915 highlights the nation’s defining classical structures from the late 19th century.