The federal government's toxic waste cleanup program is delaying projects across the country because funding is decreasing at a time when the number of sites and other demands are increasing, according to state and federal officials.
A slew of new Superfund waste sites, coupled with such needs as funding emergency responders to terrorist attacks, has drained federal resources in the past few years. As a result, officials in a number of states, including Illinois and Texas, are putting cleanup plans on hold, to the dismay of some local residents.
A top adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday that these slowdowns do not pose a threat to public health, though he acknowledged that the program has expanded beyond what lawmakers envisioned 25 years ago when they started it.
The Superfund program requires polluters to pay for the toxic waste problems they create. But when companies go bankrupt, the federal government takes on the cost.
"It's under a lot of stress, given the changing nature of what we're asked to do," said Philip Angell, senior adviser to EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt. He added: "That doesn't mean sites are sitting out there posing a risk to public health. . . . All of them have been stabilized."
In the past few years, Angell noted, the EPA has had to contend with mining contamination in such places as Libby, Mont., which could cost as much $100 million to restore. Of the approximately 100 contaminated sites being cleaned up, 10 account for half of Superfund's long-term budget.
"These are hugely expensive sites," he said.
With cleanup costs rising -- according to a recent EPA inspector general report, restoring 156 hardrock mining sites alone could cost between $7 billion and $24 billion with as much as $15 billion coming from the EPA -- other projects rank lower in terms of priority. In Granite City, Ill., for example, state officials are still seeking money to remove carcinogens and other contaminants left in the soil and groundwater by Jennison-Wright Corp., a wood treatment manufacturer that went bankrupt in 1989.
Illinois requested $12 million two years ago to address the problem, according to state project manager Fred Nika, and EPA officials have said they will provide $3.6 million by the end of September. But the money has yet to materialize.
"It delays the cleanup. It just sits there, a continuing source of contamination, and it's an eyesore," Nika said. When asked if the site posed an environmental health risk, he responded, "If it wasn't, it wouldn't be on Superfund list."
In Jasper, Tex., the EPA has stabilized contamination from another wood treatment producer, but officials hope to remove additional waste. Robert Sullivan, the federal site manager, said officials are still awaiting federal money.
"Funding is just not as great as the amount of work that continues to escalate on the other side," Sullivan said.
These delays have alarmed residents, including Rebecca Jim, who lives and works near Tar Creek, Okla., where mining companies left pilings of lead and zinc reaching 200 feet high. The government has spent 15 years and nearly $132 million restoring residents' front yards and playgrounds with uncontaminated soil. But studies over the past decade have shown that as much as 38 percent of the children living there have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
"We still have a creek that runs orange," Jim said. "Our people are sicker. We want things better, to clean up all the waste so it won't continue to harm us for the next four to five generations."
Part of the problem stems from the fact that two taxes that contributed to the Superfund trust fund -- one on crude oil and certain chemicals, another one on larger corporations -- expired in 1995 and have not been renewed. As a result, all the money for cleanups this fiscal year has come from funds appropriated by Congress, instead of from the trust fund. The EPA has asked for $150 million in cleanup funds for the past two years but received just $23 million last year. Superfund's current budget is lower than at any time since 1988.
"This shows the need for a long term stable source of funding," said Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's environmental quality program. "The Bush administration is not responsible for sites being on the list, but they are underfunding the program. That means these communities are exposed to contaminants."
Hopkins wrote a report, released yesterday, showing that the EPA says people may be vulnerable to health-threatening chemicals at 111 Superfund sites, and that groundwater is vulnerable to contamination at 251 Superfund sites.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the Sierra Club's report "shows that by emasculating the Superfund program, lives are in danger."
But Angell of the EPA called the Sierra Club's report "dishonest; both the words 'possibility' and 'may' say it all. EPA would never let that happen."