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Waste Management

Tucked away on the westernmost edge of the Florida panhandle, Escambia County is a Republican stronghold whose beaches attract droves of tourists each year, earning it the cheery tagline: "The western gate to the Sunshine State, where thousands live like millions wish they could." But no paradise would be complete without a dirty little secret, and Escambia has that, too: For more than a decade, toxins from two of the county's now-defunct wood-preserving plants have gone largely untreated. At the site of Escambia Treating Co., 255,000 cubic yards of soil containing creosote and PCP lie under a tarp behind a chain-link fence. At least that much contaminated dirt has been detected in the neighborhood across the street, forcing residents to flee the area. The 18-acre American Creosote Works site, meanwhile, has leaked chemicals into the groundwater under Pensacola Bay--the extent of the damage is still being determined.

Actually, neither of these sites is much of a secret. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put American Creosote Works on its Superfund toxic-waste cleanup list way back in 1983 and added Escambia Treating Co. in 1994. But actual cleanup has dragged on for years, and, according to EPA records, the risks of both human exposure and contaminated groundwater migration are still not under control. Moreover, local officials have blasted the agency's proposed remedy for the Escambia Treating Co. site--simply piling clay and soil over the chemical waste areas--as insufficient. Grassroots groups are quick to contend that the delay and the skimpy remedies can be traced back to Superfund's ongoing financial difficulties.

Year after year, environmentalists rail against both congressional Republicans and the Bush administration for gutting the EPA's Superfund program and allowing polluters to shirk their cleanup duties. John Kerry even briefly tried to make it a campaign issue in 2004. A variety of analyses have, in fact, shown that Superfund cleanup efforts have slowed dramatically in the past six years, while the program gasps for funds. But, this month, a series of reports from the Center for Public Integrity have taken a closer look at the program and found that things are worse than anyone realized. All the classic features of Bush-era policymaking are on full display. Caving into corporate lobbyists? Check. Excessive secrecy? Yup. Blaming Clinton for problems? That, too. But the worst part is that the ham-handed management of Superfund has bred distrust for the EPA in local communities--and forestalled congressional efforts to reform the program.

Congress first created Superfund in 1980, shortly after the media frenzy surrounding Love Canal, a neighborhood built atop a toxic waste dump. Today more than 1,200 toxic-waste facilities sit on the EPA's National Priorities List: The EPA can force those polluters responsible to clean up their mess, while a trust fund--financed by taxes on the heaviest-polluting industries--was originally set up to pay for cleanup at sites where the companies responsible couldn't do so (or couldn't be found). In 1995, however, after the Republican takeover, Congress let the corporate tax expire. In 2004, the trust fund went dry, and the Bush administration has yet to make up the difference. Between 2000 and 2005, the Superfund program had about $1.75 billion less than an independent study commissioned in 1999 estimated it would need.

The results have been noticeable. During the last six years, the EPA has declared an average of only 42 sites per year "construction complete," compared with an average of 79 per year in the previous six years. That leaves at least 288 sites around the country where, as in Escambia, either potential human exposure to toxins or contaminated groundwater migration is still not under control. EPA officials frequently complain that they lack sufficient funds, forcing them to put off work at hazardous sites or resort to cheaper, less-effective fixes. Indeed, the agency originally planned to complete 40 sites in 2007 but had to scale that back to 24. Perhaps most glaringly, according to a new Center for Public Integrity report, the amount of money that the EPA has recouped from the relevant polluters has dropped from approximately $320 million in 1999 to $60 million in 2006.

Now, whenever Bush administration officials get caught screwing up, their first response is always to point to Bill Clinton and say, "He did it!" Sure enough, Susan Bodine, head of Superfund, has explained the slowdown by insisting that the Clinton administration simply mopped up all the easy sites. There may be some truth to that, but it certainly can't explain why the EPA has been lax about going after polluters to pay for cleanup. (In any case, Kevin Matthews, an EPA official under Clinton, has disputed Bodine's claim, saying, "I don't see anything [now] that is more technically complex, or more expensive.")

There's probably a simpler explanation for Superfund's newfound lack of vigor: The Center for Public Integrity recently obtained a confidential EPA document listing approximately 100 polluters that have been linked to more than 40 percent of the country's worst toxic sites, many of which still languish. Those companies, naturally enough, have spent millions lobbying the federal government, hiring former high-level EPA officials to campaign for them and bankrolling flights for current agency employees. General Electric, for instance, has lobbied hard to avoid the costs of dredging the Hudson River, where the company has dumped more than one million pounds of PCBs over the years. In 2005, the administration settled with GE, but, unexpectedly, put the company on the hook for only the first year of cleanup. (The settlement negotiations remain secret.) A little pressure can pay off nicely.

That's not to say Superfund worked beautifully before Bush showed up. In 1992, the program was a bureaucratic nightmare, and only 40 of the country's 1,300 worst sites had been properly treated. In 1995, Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute could write, with some justification, "The truth is that Superfund's problems are so systemic that [Congress should go about] repealing the law and starting anew." But, despite Newt Gingrich's best efforts to cripple the program, the Clinton administration made a number of administrative reforms, and, by 1999, the EPA could report that nearly 90 percent of Superfund sites were either cleaned up or in the process of being cleaned. Problems still persisted, but the program was generally on the right track, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress were debating ways to tweak the system further.

The Bush administration, by contrast, has shown only contempt for the program. In 2005, after both the EPA inspector general and the Government Accountability Office had released reports detailing Superfund's money woes, Bush appointed Bodine to head it up. Curiously enough, Bodine, a former congressional staffer, had helped author a bill in 1999 that would have slashed Superfund's budget by $300 million. Meanwhile, despite the fact that a study in 2000 by W. Kip Viscusi and James Hamilton showed that many of Superfund's cleanup decisions were inspired by political influence rather than cost-benefit calculations, the EPA has begun deciding which sites to prioritize behind closed doors. Some EPA officials have complained that the secrecy was simply a way to avoid public scrutiny.

Consider, too, the administration's bright ideas for reforming Superfund. In 2004, the White House convened an EPA subcommittee stacked with industry representatives to brainstorm ways to "fix" the program. After what was undoubtedly an agonizing deliberation, the industry reps decided that the EPA really didn't need more funds to enforce cleanup projects, and suggested instead that sites be added to the priority list only if they were affordable to clean up, rather than focusing on the health risks involved. Earlier this year, the Justice Department appeared before the Supreme Court to argue that Superfund plaintiffs should not be allowed to sue other responsible parties to share the costs of cleanup. Without that provision, the EPA could have to hunt down every last polluter itself, which would overwhelm the agency. And the White House has drafted a new rule scaling back regulations on hazardous waste, which could well create more costly cleanup headaches in the future.

The administration has succeeded at one thing--persuading a greater number people to lose their faith in a program that was never well-loved to begin with. Lois Gibbs, the housewife-turned-activist who helped exposed Love Canal, said that many communities no longer trust Superfund: "They know if they get listed, it's a 10- or 20-year process to get the site cleaned up." Last month, the city of North Platte, Nebraska, declared that it didn't want the EPA's help with its water contamination problems. "We believe joining the Superfund will ... hinder our ability to respond to any problems, and create an unnecessary stigma for the community," the mayor explained. In Escambia, environmentalists are sounding a fatalistic note. "When you have to fight with the war, transportation," one local activist told the Pensacola News Journal, "it's much harder to get the money for Superfund."

Congressional Democrats, for their part, seem to deflate whenever talk turns to patching up Superfund these days. A few Democrats--notably, Barbara Boxer and John Dingell--would love to reinstate the corporate tax, but most observers give them worse-than-even odds. There's certainly nothing like the boisterous debate that was taking place in 1999 over how to hammer out some of Superfund's more troublesome kinks. (Among other things, the liability rules are still a mess--often ensnaring small companies that contributed only minor amounts of waste to a site--and it's possible that the current cleanup requirements go beyond what's necessary, forcing the EPA to spend too much time hunting down every last trace of toxin at a given site while neglecting other sites.) It's almost as if things have been botched so badly that most people have given up believing it can be fixed.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.