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.
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.
The bottom line in this dispute is that taxpayers are bearing an increasing percentage of the cost for those sites where the responsible parties fail to do the cleanup themselves (about one-third of the total). Typically, it costs more than $20 million to clean up a single Superfund site.
Resources for the Future, a Washington-based private research organization, was commissioned by Congress last year to estimate the future costs of Superfund site cleanup. The main finding: continued costs of well over one billion dollars a year, particularly since several dozen new sites are likely to be added to the EPA's National Priorities List every year.
"It's just not realistic to think the costs of Superfund are going to decline much in the next 10 years," says Katherine Probst, one of the report's authors. "Though our study does not address whether or not the now-expired taxes that stocked the trust fund should be re- imposed, it's clear there's not enough money left to pay for 10 more years of EPA work."
As with some other environmental issues, the Bush administration would like to shift at least part of the responsibility to state governments.
"Today, Superfund exists alongside other cleanup programs, such as state voluntary cleanups," says Ms. Whitman. "We need to consider how all of these cleanup tools can work together in a more effective and unified manner."
States welcome more authority, but the National Governors Association favors federal funding particularly since so many states face a budget crunch these days.
Whitman recently named a panel of experts "to spur a national dialogue on the Superfund program."
Meanwhile, the Bush administration also is under fire for forcing the resignation of Robert Martin, the EPA's ombudsman. The independent watchdog post was meant to investigate citizen complaints about toxic-waste cleanup and other issues that could be embarrasing to the EPA. Before Mr. Martin's resignation, the administration changed his position in a way that critics say weakened it.
"Mr. Martin was ousted because the bureaucracy of the EPA did not like what he was doing and it was retribution," Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania said at a recent congressional hearing.
Last September's terrorist attack in New York highlighted the importance of the post for many people.
"The ombudsman process provided a forum to communicate with my constituents, listen to their complaints and concerns ... and truly get to the bottom of what EPA did and did not do," says Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York, who represents the district where the World Trade Center towers fell into piles of toxic rubble.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed legislation that would retain the EPA ombudsman's independence.
Political dangers abound with the future of Superfund: Unless they handle it deftly, the administration will look bad on environmental issues (already one of its weak spots); Democrats will look like tax-and-spenders for wanting to nail certain businesses for the cost of cleanup even if they had nothing to do with polluting. And some polluted communities actually prefer not to be cleaned up, since designation as a Superfund site brings a stigma that turns away business.