Twenty years ago, Americans watched in alarm as the story of New York's Love Canal unfolded. Dioxin had seeped into sewers and creeks in Niagara Falls, N.Y. and covered basement walls with black sludge. More than 1,000 people were forced to leave their homes, fleeing the toxic pollution.
Moved by this assault on public health and the environment, Congress in 1980 passed the landmark Superfund law. Its purpose was simple: Clean up the nation's most hazardous waste sites, and make polluters -- not taxpayers -- pick up the bill. Since 1980, the EPA has conducted emergency cleanups at more than 5,600 hazardous waste sites -- an average of more than one in every county in America.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of this historic law, there is no doubt that the Superfund program works. In fact, the federal cleanup program today is faster, fairer and more efficient than ever. And the law has deterred companies from creating pollution in the first place, because companies have realized that limiting the pollution from their manufacturing operations costs less than cleaning it up later under a Superfund order.
Yet Congress is poised to undermine some of the most critical elements of Superfund. Both the House and Senate are moving forward with bills that threaten to set back the program. Indeed, just before Congress recessed last week, one committee of the House reported out a bill that would put more money back in the pockets of polluters, add another layer of litigation to the process and, worst of all, slow down the rate at which we clean up and restore the most toxic waste sites in the United States.
Superfund's successes can be found in every state. And millions of Americans live near property cleaned up under the program, sites that once were toxic -- often unused and unsalable -- but now host new businesses, parks and other projects that restore and revive communities:
In Denver, Shell Oil Co. and the U.S. Army are cleaning up pollution from pesticide and weapons manufacturing at the Old Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Once finished, the area will be transformed into a National Wildlife Refuge, providing families new recreation opportunities in the fast-growing Denver metropolitan area.
Children in Yorktown, Va., now play baseball and soccer on lighted sports fields situated on a once-polluted site that was cleaned up under the Superfund program. Virginia Power removed contaminated soil at the site and provided the community with a safe source of drinking water to comply with an agreement forged under Superfund.
Along a 20-mile stretch of the Tennessee River in Alabama, DDT pollution from the Redstone Arsenal Site once poisoned fish and wildlife and posed a real health hazard to surrounding communities. Under Superfund, the Olin Chemical Corp. removed more than 90 percent of the polluted material from the river, substantially reducing DDT levels. This cleanup project was twice nominated for awards by the National Wildlife Federation for outstanding corporate responsibility toward the environment.
Five years ago, federal agencies made significant administrative reforms to improve the Superfund program. We have worked hard to encourage the private parties who are responsible for contamination at Superfund sites to clean them up by entering into settlements, not fighting in court. We also have greatly increased the number of settlements with parties responsible for only small amounts of pollution at these sites, to spare them from expensive litigation brought by bigger polluters.
In addition to making the Superfund liability system more fair, our approach uses a "cleanup first" policy so we can remove public health risks first and settle liability issues later. These reforms, together with others that streamlined the cleanup process itself, mean cleanups today are completed faster than at any time in the history of the program. And while the pace has accelerated, projects to remove toxic waste are as protective as ever of public health and the environment.
Despite Superfund's resounding success, the dangers posed by hazardous contamination are still with us. Seventy million Americans, including 10 million children, live within four miles of a toxic waste site. New data indicate that babies born near Superfund sites are four times more likely to be born with serious heart defects. And studies from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry show a dismaying array of health effects associated with some Superfund sites, including infertility, impacts on the immune system and cardiac disorders.
As Congress now debates changes to the program, lawmakers should focus on Superfund's accomplishments and the way that it works today. We have improved the program to speed the pace of cleanups and encourage fair settlements. We have made gains in protecting communities and our natural environment through Superfund. Across America, Superfund is working well, and we should keep it that way so that we never again have to deal with another disaster such as Love Canal.
The writer is the assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Department of Justice.