A Superfund Success: Toxic Texas Lagoon `Bio'-Cleaned

THE federal Superfund law - a favorite pincushion of environmental and business critics alike - scored a quiet success this week in Texas.

A seven-year project to clean up a notorious toxic lagoon northeast of Houston was completed faster and less expensively than originally envisioned.

The project at the French Limited wastehauling site was the first on the Superfund list to enlist the novel technique of ``bioremediation'' - allowing bacteria to breakdown the toxic soup.

It also spurred the development of new technologies and procedures that may be used at some of the other 1,296 Superfund sites around the country.

``There's been a lot of rhetoric: `The Superfund [law] is broken. We need to fix it.' I just don't agree with that,'' says Richard Sloan, a chemical engineer with ARCO Chemical Company who is manager of the French Limited cleanup. ``If everybody works together, [the law] works just fine.''

Critics say the 14-year-old law causes companies found liable for a cleanup to spend too much time and money suing each other and their insurance companies, and not enough scouring dump sites. Of the $7 billion to $11 billion that industries have spent because of the Superfund law, 25 percent went for legal fees, the Treasury Department estimates.

Work has been completed at just 278 sites, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says.

Congress adjourned this fall without revising and reauthorizing the Superfund law, formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980. Congress is likely to act on it next year, since the law is set to expire in September.

On Superfund list in 1983

The 23-acre French Limited site was placed on the Superfund list in 1983. The French Limited wastehauling company had been licensed by Texas until 1973 to dump chemicals into a sand pit in the San Jacinto river flood plain. When the company went out of business, the state became owner of the toxic lagoon, which by then had received 80 million gallons of organic chemical waste.

The hauling company's records specified how much waste from which industrial customers had come to the site.

That clear evidence of liability under the Superfund law made it easy for the 90 companies to agree to form the French Limited Task Group to pay for the cleanup and to allocate costs among themselves, Sloan says.

The task group has cooperated closely with the EPA from the outset, says Judith Black, a remedial project manager with the agency. French Limited is one of the few Superfund sites she oversees in which the agency is not treated as an enemy that unfairly forces companies to spend money, she says.

The remediation effort had to address the toxic sludge at the bottom of the lagoon, the water above the sludge, and a contaminated aquifer.

Initially the EPA ordered incineration to get rid of the sludge. When the task group asked to try bioremediation instead, the agency agreed to a pilot project. The novel technology was successful: Bacteria broke down the chemicals into carbon dioxide and water. Sloan estimates that bioremediation saved $50 million. As it is, the cleanup has cost $90 million.

Many changes made

Learning as they went, the project team made 80 major modifications to their plans, Sloan says. Ms. Black credits Sloan with the idea of a ``refinement notice'' - paperwork the project team would file with the EPA to get next-day approval of needed modifications. The former procedure might have taken months in each instance.

French Limited was also the first Superfund application of new equipment using ``reverse osmosis'' - the most efficient water-purfication technique - but one not usually tried on toxic wastewater because the membrane filters become fouled so easily.

Rochem Environmental Inc. of Houston avoided that problem with its exclusive, German-made equipment and cleansed the lagoon water at one-sixth of the cost of alternative methods. Rochem president Ken Miller says the same methods could be used at 80 percent of the nation's Superfund sites.

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