The federal government owns or is responsible for thousands of facilities and sites contaminated by toxic wastes and faces long-term cleanup costs of more than $150 billion, the Congressional Budget Office said in a report released yesterday.
In addition to the well-documented environmental liabilities at the Energy Department's nuclear weapons manufacturing plants, the report said, nearly every large government agency owns sites that it is legally responsible for cleaning up.
Among them are wood and metal workshops of the Bureau of Prisons, chemical laboratories confiscated in federal drug raids, silos owned by the Commodity Credit Corp. where toxic fumigants have contaminated groundwater, abandoned mines on federal land, research laboratories in the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments and some of the thousands of properties acquired through seizure of the assets of failed savings and loan associations.
At some facilities, such as portions of the Energy Department complex at Hanford, Wash., radioactive contamination is so extensive that "complete cleanup may be technically and economically unfeasible," the report said. These may have to be designated "National Sacrifice Zones, permanently sealed off from public access."
The report was requested and released by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Glenn said that the federal government, although required to comply with laws such as the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, "is not dealing with this problem with the urgency it deserves."
He said he would push legislation that would require the Office of Management and Budget to prepare 30-year cost estimates and five-year cleanup spending plans similar to those published last year by the Energy Department.
According to W. David Montgomery, whose staff at CBO produced the report, the $150 billion "ballpark" cost figure includes the $71 billion to $111 billion the Energy Department expects to need over 30 years to bring its nuclear plants into compliance with environmental laws. Costs at the Energy and Defense departments may exceed $150 billion, the report said.
While Energy and Defense department facilities "account for the bulk of the costs," Montgomery said, "other agencies have a significant number of sites. They just aren't as far along in assessing them. They don't know what their liabilities are."
Federal regulations require agencies to list their hazardous waste sites on a "docket" at the Environmental Protection Agency. As of the end of 1988, the CBO report said, 1,099 sites were listed, but researchers found an additional 8,357 sites for which the government is responsible.
In addition to outlays for removing and processing toxic and hazardous wastes, the report said, government agencies face vast potential exposure to lawsuits. "Although difficult to estimate accurately," the report said, "federal spending for compliance with federal and state hazardous waste requirements will be enormous."
The Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, seized 816 illegal drug laboratories in 1989. The byproducts of these operations, which are now the responsibility of the U.S. Marshals Service, include toxins such as hydrogen chloride gas and lead acetate.
"Drug dealers," the report noted, "rarely dispose of these wastes properly."