"To be honest with you, I thought this was a joke," said Matthew Tirman, environmental health advocate for U.S. PIRG, referring to the model plane club venture. "From a public health point of view, it's not the way to go. These are Superfund sites that have some level of contamination in them."
EPA dismisses worries that the sites pose any danger for the new users. "They are safe. We spend millions and millions of dollars and years and years cleaning them up," said Melissa Friedland, EPA national program manager for Superfund Redevelopment. "But not all sites are suitable for all uses."
Friedland said there is intense interest in the land among communities and developers because, particularly in urban areas, undeveloped acreage is hard to come by.
Environmentalists are wary. PIRG and other groups are generally critical of how EPA has managed the Superfund cleanup program. There are 1,237 sites currently eligible for Superfund cleanup, yet the pace of cleanup, the tax on polluters to fund cleanups, and the budget allotted to the program have slowed or disappeared. Since 1980 there have been a total of 1,597 sites on the Superfund National Priorities List.
The grassy site that the aviators hope to be flying on soonest is outside of Altoona, Pa.
When the model airplane group struck its agreement with the EPA, the agency's Region 3 remedial Superfund project manager Romuald A. Roman contacted Beshar to tell him about the old landfill. "This is a hill. No obstruction. No trees. It's a perfect place to fly airplanes," Roman said in an interview.
Called Delta Quarries, the 57-acre site was a landfill that operated from 1964 until 1985. The area was on the National Priorities List for cleanup because ground and surface water became contaminated with heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. It was covered with soil in 1987 and a cleanup plan was completed.
The deal in Altoona is not final yet because the community must sign off.
Tirman acknowledged the Altoona site is safe for flying model planes by remote control, but not anything like home building. He said alliances with the private sector may lead to "a dangerous trap of less and less regulation of these sites."
The literature that the EPA distributes on the redevelopment program stresses that it does not lower its standard of protection and it does not reduce the cleanup measures taken at a site.
Out for Comment: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported recently in a memo to employees that tests of its inspectors for exposure to beryllium showed 10 of 271 tested positive for sensitivity to the chemical, which can lead to potentially fatal lung disease. The issue became a touchy one after a top OSHA administrator, Adam Finkel, filed a whistle-blower complaint in 2003, alleging the agency did not intend to implement a special testing program (The Regulators, Feb. 1).