When General Electric agreed earlier this month to clean up toxic PCBs it dumped into the Hudson River over decades, federal officials hailed it as a victory for the environment - and for the Superfund, the federal system created to mop up such infamous toxic waste sites as Love Canal.
Superfund sites like the GE-Hudson River are part of an apparent trend in which more polluters are stepping forward to pay for such cleanups, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports.
Yet numerous "orphan" hazardous waste sites remain - those with no "responsible party," such as General Electric, able or willing to pay for cleanups.
In just the past four years, there has been a 185 percent jump in special accounts established for specific site cleanups - and $2.8 billion in private-party financial commitments to do the job, the 2004 Superfund annual report issued last month reveals.
Superfund has been slow to clean up these sites due to chronic funding shortfalls. Money has dried up because Congress has refused to continue taxing polluting industries, defined as taxing the production of chemical pollutants found in waste sites.
It may cost more than $500 million to clean the Hudson River Superfund site. Dredging the river is scheduled to begin in 2007. In other examples, the Atlantic Richfield Company and NorthWestern Corporation agreed in August to clean the Milltown Reservoir Superfund site in Montana in a $100 million settlement, the Department of Justice and the EPA announced.
Earlier, DuPont completed cleanup of Necco Park in Niagara Falls, N.Y. in 2002 under EPA oversight, and in June the corporation agreed to reimburse the EPA $2.7 million for past costs.
Hundreds of the approximately 1,600 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List of toxic waste cleanup sites fall into the orphan-site category, according to environmental critics.
The pace of cleaning up orphan sites over the past four years has slowed dramatically. At the same time, the annual number of Superfund sites designated as cleaned up has also dropped by about half in that period.
With this slowing, some question whether a weakened Superfund will be able do its job adequately in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The EPA lists 54 Superfund sites in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama. But even though emergency funding from Congress will clean up many immediate messes, the number of orphan Gulf Coast Superfund sites will soon mushroom, waste watchdogs say.
"We know there are cleanup sites at dozens of gas stations, dry cleaners, and pesticide plants - discoveries that are going to be made a year or two from now, well after FEMA leaves," says Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va.
Polluters have an incentive to strike deals with the federal government since without steady funding, the EPA is in a weak position to bargain on cleanups and must often accept polluter's terms or face years in court it cannot afford, critics say.
It was not always this way for Superfund, which Congress created during President Carter's administration to clean up hazardous waste sites nobody else would. By 1995, Superfund had a $3.6 billion surplus - the same year Congress refused to continue taxing polluting industries.
Because of that action, Superfund ran dry in 2002, with taxpayers now forced to contribute more than a billion dollars annually to fill the gap - about $1.2 billion in 2005 alone.
By comparison, taxpayers forked over just $300 million to clean up waste sites in 1995, about 18 percent of the Superfund, according to a tally by Ms. Gibbs's group.
Despite having more than $1 billion in taxpayer funds, Superfund has had a one-third decline in overall funding over the past 12 years and persistent shortfalls in funding, including about $175 million in 2003, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported in June.
Such shortfalls resulted in a declining number of Superfund sites cleaned up each year, critics say. In the late 1990s, an average of 87 cleanups were completed each year, compared with about 40 per year since 2002, the EPA reported.
Just 16 sites were announced as completely cleaned up, according to an EPA tally in mid-September, but the final total is expected to be about the same as in 2004, an EPA spokesman says.
Noting the slowdown, some congressional lawmakers including Sens. Barbara Boxer (D) of California and Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey have proposed returning to polluter funding, but several votes taken in the last few years have failed.
Ms. Gibbs blames the White House for opposing the "polluter pays principle" and instead "giving polluters a tax holiday" at taxpayers' expense.
EPA officials, however, blame fewer completed cleanups and the slowdown in new project starts on greater technical hurdles and rising costs of cleanups.
"Funding from Congress has remained relatively steady and with that set funding EPA has cleaned up a substantial number of the less costly and complex sites, while continuing to address the cleanup needs of the more complicated sites," says Eryn Witcher, EPA press secretary.
Top EPA officials also say the Superfund system is working well.
"This is an historic agreement that commits GE to begin dredging the Hudson River," said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson earlier this month in a statement. "This is an important milestone in this complex environmental project."
But even this landmark deal could have a major downside, if GE refuses to fund a later phase of the project. In that case, the cost could shift to the US taxpayer.
"The EPA is just adding to the problem by reaching partial settlements that really let responsible parties off the hook," says Alex Fidis, an attorney at the US Public Interest Research Group, an environmental group in Washington, D.C. "This would be less likely to happen if the EPA could say, 'Fine, we have the funds to do the clean up - and send you the bill.'"