Superfund set to start cleaning up abandoned hazardous waste sites

The so-called superfund bill, waiting the President's signature, is the "missing cornerstone" in the nation's fledgling efforts to deal with the problem of hazardous wastes.

At least, that is the line Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrators have been using in their lobbying efforts on its behalf.

While the $1.6 billion version of superfund --by the House -- is a major step forward in US efforts to cope with this problem, it also is a seriously limited piece of legislation, one that satisfies none of the parties involved.

New York's Love Canal, Kentucky's socalled "valley of the drums," and a number of other dangerous dump sites for poisonous chemical wastes have galvanized extreme public concern and set the machinery of local, state, and federal governments into action.

These abandoned or "orphan" hazardous waste sites are the legacy of more than a half-century of neglect. Widespread use of synthetic materials began in the 1930s. Yet it was not until 1972 that the first comprehensive state act was passed to control the hazardous byproducts of the chemical age, and not until 1976 that the federal government passed a hazardous waste management act. As a result, no one yet knows the real size of the problem, agree EPA officials, representatives of the chemical industry, and environmentalists.

A 1979 report on the subject by the White House Intergovernmental Science, Engineering, and Technology Advisory Panel summarized the problem:

"It has been estimated that from 35 million to several billion tons of wastes are generated annually that present varying degrees of hazard to human health or the environment. In addition, it is estimated that at least 1,200 and possibly as many as 50,000 existing municipal and industrial disposal sites contain wastes that constitute a present or potential hazard to human health and the environment. Cleanup costs for these existing sites, using currently available approaches, have been conservatively estimated to range from $4 billion to over

In addition, the nature of the risks involved --potentially poisonous materials -- is "more insidious . . . more difficult to identify and quantify" than traditional public health concerns, explains Dr. Lawrence Fishbein of the National Center for Toxicological Research.

Thus, the current superfund legislation was drafted in a situation of considerable uncertainty.

Yet there is one thing that experts in the field generally agree upon. As Norman H. Nosenchuck, director of New York's Division of Solid Waste Management, declared recently: "I want to assure you that even the worst dumps can be properly isolated, so that nearby areas which have been threatened can once again be safe -- safe from further exposure to residents or to the environment."

At the Love Canal site, he explains, 7,000 lineal feet of barrier drain, 3 feet wide and 12 to 19 feet deep, filled with sand and crushed stone have been constructed. This carries the poisonous runoff to sumps, where it is pumped into storage tanks. The site has been capped with a drainage system that carries surface water to nearby storm sewers rather than permitting it to percolate into the disposal area below.

However, response at problem sites has varied considerably, reports Michael Cook, EPA associate deputy assistant administrator for emergency response. "At the "valley of the drums" site, the containers of chemical waste have been simply rearranged to minimize leakage, a drainage system has been constructed, and the contaminated liquid is filtered through activated carbon in a Demsey Dumpster. According to Mr. Cook, the $1.6 billion superfund will enable them to contain the wastes at a few hundred sites in a fashion similar to what has been done at Love Canal and to completely clean up one or two other sites.

The EPA's current best estimate for the number of sites that will require federal remedial action is 1,200 to 2,000. This estimate is challenged by the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), which puts the figure at 300 to 500.

The EPA also estimates containment of a site to cost between $3 million and $ 3.5 million, while CMA pegs the cost at $1 million per site. The industry organization has set up an emergency reponse center, sent in its own experts to survey three abandoned sites, and given the EPA its recommendations on how best to handle them.

In general, state hazardous waste officials tend to agree with EPA estimates of the size of the problem. "$1.6 billion is far too meager," maintains Ken Finney, assistant director of the California hazardous waste program.

With superfund money, the EPA also will begin conducting a natonal survey of abandoned sites. By the end of the five years of research provided in the legislation, the magnitude of abandoned site problem should be known far more precisely.

One clear deficiency of the superfund bill, say a number of experts, is that it fails to clearly define the question of liability. "One reason I am not more enthusiastic about the bill is the fact that liability is left an open question, " explains Blake Early of the Sierra Club. Mr. Finney also considers this a major problem.

Both men would like to see strict liability applied. Should problems arise, this would mean that it would only be necessary to prove that a company's waste was present at a site to hold to liable. It would not be necessary to prove negligence.

Under the current bill, companies that generate and dispose of hazardous wastes are liable for the cost of cleanup plus up to $50 million for incidental damage to governmentowned natural resources. Victims, however, will not be compensated.

This is identical to liability provisions in the federal Clean Water Act, a program that EPA officials say has worked well but has not been extensively tested in court. Common law has been tending toward strict liability.

Hazardous waste officials like the way the money for the fund will be generated. Some 88 percent will come from fees on the sale of 40 specific substances by chemical manufacturers. Also, a separate fund of $200 million will be set up, financed by a fee on wastes deposited in federally approved sites.With this fund, the federal government will assume liability for operation and closure of sites that conform to regulations.

This does not sit well with the manufacturers, however. The CMA calls this "inflationary" and considers it one of the "flaws" in the bill. Nevertheless, it concludes that this legislation "is a significant improvement" over early superfund versions.

Finally, EPA officials are happy with the emergency reponse provisions in the bill. They will have a great deal of discretion in the manner in which they respond to spills of hazardous materials.

Next: close management of hazardous wastes. How well will it work?

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