The receding floodwaters in New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast are exposing hazardous chemicals and other dangerous waste. But they're also revealing the accomplishments - and the limits - of government programs designed to clean up such pollution.
Among the concerns: That natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes haven't been adequately considered in fashioning safe and secure remedies; that areas tainted by toxic waste, such as rivers in the East and old mines in the West, are becoming larger and more complex; that many newly closed military bases will require considerable cleanup before they're ready for private or local government use; and that federal funding is falling behind the need.
The main program here is a bureaucratic mouthful: the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund.
Passed in the wake of the Love Canal episode in upstate New York 25 years ago, the law created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries. Operating under the "polluter pays" principle, individually liable companies or property owners could be held financially responsible for cleaning up hazardous waste sites as well. The Environmental Protection Agency created a "National Priorities List" of the most serious uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites, a list that has grown to about 1,600 nationwide.
Several Superfund sites in the New Orleans area were inundated by hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed. The most worrisome is the Agriculture Street Landfill, located about halfway between the French Quarter and Lake Pontchartrain. For nearly a century, municipal garbage and industrial wastes accumulated there. It was loaded with lead, arsenic, dioxin and carcinogenic hydrocarbons and later sprayed with the now-banned pesticide DDT. Underground fires gave it the nickname "Dante's Inferno."
The 95-acre site eventually was "remediated" under Superfund - fenced off and covered with a mat barrier and two feet of clean soil. As was the case with Love Canal, local residents continued to complain of health problems.
Today, the EPA and other agencies are investigating whether several feet of rushing floodwaters from the storm and from the collapsed Industrial Canal Levee very close to the former landfill spread the hazardous wastes from that downtown site across a much wider area. Other Superfund sites near New Orleans in Slidell, La., and Madisonville, La., also sustained flooding and there is concern two sites in neighboring Mississippi counties also have water damage.
"The potential for contaminants to rise and migrate through the flood waters to other areas is real," Solid Waste & Recycling magazine reported this week. "It's likely that the multimillion-dollar site restoration conducted a few years ago has been compromised, perhaps even rendered worthless."
Congress and the Bush administration are sure to address hazardous waste cleanup as part of the massive federal response to Katrina.
But they're also faced with renewed scrutiny of the whole Superfund program. The industry tax fund ran out of money when Congress refused to renew it in 1995. Assigning blame among multiple polluters and subsequent property owners has been difficult.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recently warned that companies are using bankruptcies to avoid legal responsibility. The recent round of base closings complicates things as toxic waste sites on military property get transferred to state and local governments. And some of the most challenging hazardous waste problems - the Hudson and Passaic Rivers in the East, the hard-rock mines around Butte, Mont. - are proving to be far more difficult to deal with than landfills and shuttered factories.
"Both of those kinds of sites tend to be physically huge and very challenging," says Katherine Probst of Resources for the Future, a Washington think tank. "Not only are they very expensive, it's not exactly clear what to do."
"They're very expensive, and they're very complex," says Ms. Probst, who is an expert on Superfund and other hazardous waste management programs. "It's not like capping a landfill."
Last year, several members of Congress asked the EPA's inspector general about the adequacy of funding for hazardous waste cleanup under Superfund.
In her 104-page report, EPA inspector general Nikki Tinsley wrote: "In summary, during FY 2003, limited funding prevented EPA from beginning construction at all sites or providing additional funds needed to address sites in a manner believed necessary by regional officials...."
Whether due to increasingly difficult challenges in hazardous waste cleanups or a lack of political will, the number of Superfund cleanups has slowed in recent years. Meanwhile, analyses of EPA's National Priorities List show that 1 in 4 Americans, including some 10 million children, live within four miles of a Superfund site. As has become the case along the Gulf Coast, many of those people live in low-income, largely African-American communities.
In recent years, the budget for Superfund has stayed essentially flat at about $1.5 billion a year. With inflation and new sites needing cleanup, critics say, that means a slight but steady decrease.
"The program is not getting the funding it needs," says Alex Fidis, an attorney specializing in Superfund for the US Public Interest Research Group in Washington. "The problems are still there and if anything are getting worse."
The experience with Katrina tells some observers that dealing with hazardous waste sites may need a different approach - especially in areas vulnerable to forces of nature. "There needs to be a greater emphasis on cleanups that are really cleanups and not just covering it up," says Ed Hopkins, director of environmental quality programs for the Sierra Club in Washington. "But of course that involves money."