OMAHA -- As a toddler, Elam Jacob used to cling to one of the front windows in his house to watch his father, Cory, leave for work. At the end of the day, Elam would climb back onto the sill to await his father's return, giggling as Dad came up the steps.
Unbeknown to his parents, Elam was inhaling lead-laced dust blowing in from outside, the legacy of a defunct smelter dating to 1871 and a handful of smaller industrial operations in town. After the sunny, blond 13-month-old, who had learned eight words, lost the ability to talk in 2001 and became hyperactive, his mother, Heidi, found a description of lead poisoning on the Internet and realized it matched Elam's symptoms. A blood test revealed he had lead levels of four times the safety threshold identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"He's permanently damaged. There's no reversal," said Heidi Jacob, 30, a mother of four who began crying as she recalled the discovery. "It's totally preventable. You know where it comes from, and nobody told us about it."
Elam -- who at age 4 speaks mainly gibberish and jumps around incessantly -- is one of more than 2,600 children with high lead levels in East Omaha, a largely poor inner-city neighborhood that ranks as one of the most dangerous toxic waste sites in the nation. The area was recently added to the Superfund federal waste-cleanup program and the bankrupt trust fund that was supposed to pay for it.
The cleanup effort here, however, is receiving only a fraction of the funding it needs, and the project could easily take a dozen years.
It is not the only one. Nationwide, Superfund is grappling with a growing number of costlier and more complex sites and a chronic reluctance by Congress to raise its budget.
Facing a record budget shortfall of about $250 million and about 475 uncompleted sites, the nearly 25-year-old program aimed at protecting Americans from industrial contamination is in crisis. Program managers are scaling back their spending requests and slowing cleanups. Republicans and Democrats agree that the program needs more money, but its budget has been stagnant for a decade and its original industry-funded multibillion-dollar trust fund is broke.
"We've got a growing problem," said Thomas P. Dunne, who oversees Superfund cleanups at the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. Although the program has completed work on 883 nongovernmental sites since it began, 34 Superfund projects ready or almost ready for cleanup this year received no funding, Dunne said.
In the region overseeing the Omaha Lead Site, officials instructed managers to "reduce the scope, phase or delay planned activities where possible," according to the EPA's inspector general. Regional authorities spent less than half the money they estimated Omaha needed in 2003 just to test homes for contamination.
Superfund is no longer dogged by the kind of endless litigation that defined its early years -- one hearing, in the mid-1980s, was held in the Pittsburgh Convention Center to accommodate the number of lawyers involved. The program is by most accounts more efficient than it was a decade ago, but many politicians are reluctant to embrace it because it remains a daunting problem that affects mostly Americans with little political clout.
It is, in the words of EPA consultant Philip Angell, a "program of last resort" for communities abandoned by the companies that once provided them with jobs but fouled their surroundings in the process. Although at 70 percent of sites the companies responsible pay for cleaning up the contamination they created, the government has to cover the costs for the 30 percent at which companies have gone bankrupt or are resisting a settlement, according to the EPA.
Initially focused mostly on chemical and petroleum pollution, Superfund now must cope with a wide variety of situations, including piles of mining tailings in far northeastern Oklahoma and lead sediment at the bottom of Idaho's picturesque Lake Coeur D'Alene. At the Tar Creek site in Oklahoma, authorities are so concerned about the health risks of mining refuse that they just approved $5 million to relocate as many as 100 families with young children living near the site.
EPA has put 49 sites in the District, Maryland and Virginia on Superfund's national priority list, which refers to the nation's worst toxic waste areas.
Cleanups at "mega-sites," such as those at Coeur D'Alene and Tar Creek, will cost a total of $1.75 billion to complete over the next few decades, according to EPA officials, who note that nine out of 120 sites on the Superfund long-term list consumed 52 percent of this year's cleanup budget. One internal EPA chart estimates a cleanup backlog of $750 million within two years, though Barry N. Breen, Dunne's deputy, called this figure misleading.