The U.S. Department of Energy initiated a remedial investigation of the Clinch River/Poplar Creek system Superfund Site in 1989. This site, located in eastern Tennessee near Oak Ridge, consists of 70 river kilometers and 40 km(2) of surface area. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the nature and extent of contamination, perform an ecological and human health risk assessment, and evaluate possible remedial alternatives. This introductory article summarizes the environmental setting, the contamination history, and the study approach and provides some general results of the site characterization. Subsequent papers in this series describe the ecological risks to fish, piscivorous and insectivorous wildlife, and benthic invertebrates.