Pace of toxic cleanups slows as funding, support dwindle
States and taxpayers assume the burden of costly toxic cleanups; critics blame Bush administration EPA changes.
The nation's program for cleaning up toxic waste reflects a troubling legacy of US history: Water and soil contamination from the heyday of mining. Leaky vessels of poisonous chemicals left over from cold war and Vietnam War weapons production. Waste from old factories seeping into the ground. A polluted "ground zero" in New York where the World Trade Center towers once stood.Skip to next paragraph
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The program began in 1980, shortly after some 600 families had to abandon their homes near a former chemical plant in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y. Nicknamed "Superfund" for the billions of dollars earmarked for cleaning up such places, the program has one guiding philosophy: "The polluter pays."
But today, the amount of money in the fund has dwindled, the rate of cleanup has slowed, and taxpayers rather than polluters are increasingly paying the costs. Meanwhile, critics say, the independent watchdog meant to keep an eye on things has been defanged by the Bush administration.
Over the years, several hundred toxic-waste sites on the Environmental Protection Agency's "National Priorities List" have been cleaned up. But the list still includes 1,221 sites. Among them: an asbestos dump in Millington, N.J.; an Army ammunition plant in Karnack, Texas; a landfill in Burnsville, Minn.; and a mine in Smelterville, Idaho. Each year, new sites are added to the list.
According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which lobbies in Washington for grass-roots organizations around the country, one in four Americans lives within four miles of one of the Superfund sites 85 percent of which have contaminated groundwater.
During the Clinton years, cleanup was completed at an average of 87 sites a year. Since then, the yearly average has dropped to about half that number. There's little doubt that the more challenging cleanups take longer to complete, and can thus slow down the whole program, reducing the annual average.
But critics say the Bush administration is at fault. Citing a report last week by the EPA's inspector general, they warn that the administration is cutting funds for the cleanup of 33 toxic waste sites in 18 states this year. And they're particularly concerned that Bush opposes the special tax on major polluting industries (including petroleum and chemicals) that had been used to pay for the cleanup of many sites where the responsible business or agency could not.
"The Bush administration should make polluters, not taxpayers, pay for toxic-waste cleanups," says U.S. PIRG staff attorney Grant Cope.
But that special tax used to finance the cleanup trust fund expired in 1995, and congressional opponents (mainly Republicans) have refused to renew it on the grounds that it's unfair. EPA administrator Christie Whitman agrees. "Even those that have the best of environmental records are also paying," she told lawmakers earlier this year.
The special fund financed by the tax on industry totaled $3.8 billion before it was cut off. It is likely to have shrunk to $28 million by the end of this year.