Superangst About Superfund

LATELY, many authorities have gone to great lengths to tell us why Superfund, the 1980 law that initiated the cleanup of the nation's most toxic dumpsites, is a frightful mess.Experts say it will cost a trillion dollars and may take centuries to finish. Environmentalists claim children are dying because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is acting so slowly. Others say "transaction costs" of lawyers, engineering studies, and administration are costing billions and have doubled the price tag. Innocent parties are dragged into litigation because they might have had some business dealings with a contaminator. Hundreds of small business and municipalities, even banks, are a t risk of going into bankruptcy because of the law. The basic question deals with the extravagant costs of the program for insignificant protection of the public health. John Topping, a former EPA administrator with no axe to grind, says, "The economic cost of fully carrying out the present Superfund program is far greater than any advance in public health.... You can easily put $70 million into the ground ... without yielding any social benefits whatsoever." Engineer Thomas Connolly of Stanford concurs: "EPA regulations make toxic waste cleanup 100 times more expensive than public health requires." Furthermore, he says, all sites together probably cause only two or three deaths a year while other pollution takes "thousands of lives per year." LOW down, everybody. The stakes are high but, according to some estimates ($30 million per site and going down) cleanup should not cost more than $30 billion for the 1,200 priority sites on the Superfund list. Yes, the states have their own lists, and tens of thousands of other sites could be listed by the EPA. But the highly contaminated sites have been identified, and no one I know is suggesting every gas station be evacuated. The costs are high, but a drop in the bucket compared to two small US military forays in the past two years. We have to remember Congress passed the law and the American people are standing by it. The one fact about Americans that has been apparent since Love Canal and Bhopal is that they won't accept nearby unknown risks. They balk at unknown risks, even if the risk is insignificant compared to many other things they do, such as driving a car, climbing stairs, or eating peanut butter. It is certainly true that many other pollutants are more dangerous in the short and long run - air pollution, for example. Millions of people are suffering lung damage, and others are confined indoors because of air pollution in metropolitan areas. Health and environmental damage from global warming and climate change are far greater risks than contaminated waste sites. A society that calmly assessed risks would be spending most of its money on air pollution and global warming, with a close eye on drinking water problems and ecological damage. The good effect of all the jawboning of Superfund in the past five years has been a continuing refining of rules by the EPA and state environmental agencies. Everybody's looking over everybody else's shoulder for instances of unfairness. Lobbyists from all sides - industry, lawyers, municipalities, environmentalists, and more - are pressing their cases for no-fault liability, justice, high environmental standards, and dozens of other new solutions. When we look to science for answers about dangers from environmental risks, we will never be absolutely sure of the answer. Scientists will give us "ball park" estimates, but these could be off by light years. Yet scientific methods have improved immeasurably in the past decade if we want to use them. Government agencies have slowly been incorporating these new methods of risk assessment when looking at toxic waste sites. In the end, some approximation of the democratic process prevails. Since all of us have different value preferences for our health and safety and different tolerance for fear and uncertainty, we will decide differently about how to pay for peace of mind. Superfund is not the catastrophe many say it is. It is another example of how our sometimes messy democratic systems work.

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