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Long Road to a Superfund Cleanup

After nine years, few sites have been cleaned up, and the tab is now estimated at $30 billion. HAZARDOUS WASTE

By Lawrence J. GoodrichStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 1989



WOBURN, MASS.

WHEN the Superfund was created at the end of 1980 to clean up toxic waste sites such as Love Canal and those here in Woburn, many people thought solving the problem would be fairly straightforward. Armed with $1.8 billion, the EPA would move in, stop the contamination, clean it up, and make the polluters pay. But it hasn't worked that way.

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Ask John Rabbitt, mayor of Woburn, an old industrial city of 40,000 people on Route 128 northwest of Boston.

Standing at a chalk board behind a desk covered with engineering plans, letters from the public, and official memos, the grandfatherly Mr. Rabbitt explains his frustration with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is working to clean up two of its nationally listed sites in his city. Both cleanups will take decades.

The Superfund cleanup law ``absolutely needs to be changed to protect innocent people'' who did not contribute to the pollution in the first place, he says.

A case in point is that of city wells G and H, which used to supply about 30 percent of Woburn's drinking water. The wells are located near a swamp surrounded by industry. In 1979 they were found to be contaminated with a variety of chemicals and shut down. They were placed on the EPA priorities list in 1983.

In accordance with the Superfund law, the EPA has designated the nearby factories and owners of the land as responsible parties who will be liable for cleaning up the pollution. But Rabbitt objects that at least two of the parties - the city itself and the Massachusetts Rifle Association Inc., which owns a shooting range and conservation land next to the wells - should not be held liable, since they did not contribute to the contamination.

``EPA is trying to get everyone involved [in the cleanup] first,'' Rabbitt says. ``They should clean up the sites first, and then decide who should pay.''

The question of liability is one reason for Superfund's slow progress. Of 1,200 sites placed on the national priorities list during the program's nine years, only 26 cleanups have been completed.

Just getting a cleanup started is a tortuous process. A report prepared earlier this year under incoming EPA administrator William Reilly estimated that it will take an average of 13 years to begin cleanup on the sites currently on the list.

`Realistic' cleanups needed

Rabbitt says the law should provide for what he terms a ``realistic'' cleanup. Currently, the EPA is required to completely remove hazardous waste from a site. In the case of the Woburn wells, this means making the water drinkable again. The EPA has just announced a $68 million plan to clean up the five industrial sites surrounding the wells which will take 30 to 50 years. It is still studying how to clean the wells themselves.

But the mayor says this is ridiculous. He says the EPA should concentrate on cleaning up the industrial sites, and let the aquifer purify itself naturally. ``No one is going to drink that water again,'' he says. He believes the Superfund law needs revision to avoid burdening ``innocent parties'' such as city governments.

The high cost of the Woburn cleanup mirrors a looming issue for the program at large.

``Early on in the program, we had a lot of money, but few sites moving through the pipeline,'' says Paul Keough, the EPA's acting regional administrator for New England. ``Now a lot of studies are moving into the construction phase.'' The problem in this phase will be funding, he says.

When the program began, the estimated cost per cleanup site was $5 million to $7 million, Mr. Keough says. Now the average cost per cleanup is estimated to be $25 million. With 1,200 sites, this comes to $30 billion. And about 75 to 100 sites are being added to the list each year.