Superfund Shuffle Irks Enviros

water pollution
The Bush administration has added 10 new sites to the list of big-money Superfund toxic waste cleanup projects and delayed work on 10 others, factoring in the potential for economic development as well as possible health risks in choosing the locations.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency said there isn't enough money to begin all the projects now, prompting environmentalists to complain that not enough emphasis is being put on the cleanups.

Five other sites — Federal Creosote in Manville, N.J.; New Bedford Harbor in New Bedford, Mass., Roebling Steel Co. in Florence, N.J.; Welsbach & General Gas Mantle in Camden County, N.J.; and Libby, Montana's asbestos and ground water contamination — are getting reduced funding this year to free up money for the new starts, EPA officials said Thursday. Exact figures were unavailable.

EPA on Wednesday released to The Associated Press lists of 10 sites sharing $49 million in startup money for cleanups and sites passed over. The sites chosen for cleanups range from a Denver smelting area beside Interstate 70 to a former wood treating facility in Conroe, Texas, where redevelopment had begun for businesses and homes.

Marianne L. Horinko, EPA's acting administrator, told the AP the primary deciding factor was still the relative health risks posed by each site. Money for the cleanups comes from both Congress and what the agency can collect from polluters.

President Bush has asked Congress to add $150 million to next year's Superfund program budget. The program now gets about $1.3 billion from general tax revenues and a nearly depleted trust fund, and about $1.7 billion from companies found directly responsible for polluting.

The trust fund is dwindling because a special tax on businesses that once paid into the fund lapsed in 1995. A Democratic effort to restore the tax was defeated in the Senate this year.

"There's not enough money to start everything we want this year," said Horinko, who before taking over as temporary head of EPA this week oversaw the agency's Superfund program. "You need to prioritize based on risks to human health and the environment."

But she said EPA officials also looked at other factors, including development potential, prospects for reimbursing the government and the impact of environmental injustices.

"I've made revitalization one of my key themes in my tenure here," Horinko said. "Most of these sites, we get an added benefit when we clean them up — not only can we protect the community, but we also raise property values and bring jobs back to the community. These sites, which had been eyesores in many cases, become assets."

She pointed to the Bunker Hill site in northern Idaho's Coeur d'Alene River basin where communities were built on mine wastes, saying it represents the opportunity to reconstruct "a world-class recreation area."

She also cited a former Superfund site in Denver where high-grade radium ore was processed until the 1920s, but was cleaned up decades later and used for a Home Depot store that opened in 1996.

Along with the 10 chosen for new cleanups, the Elizabeth Mine site in Orange County, Vt., is receiving $1 million in emergency funding, EPA officials said. The abandoned copper mine has piles of rock residue, or tailings, near homes, a road and the Connecticut River.

Overall, there are now 1,233 sites in the annual $3 billion Superfund program Congress began in 1980. The Bush administration added seven sites to the list this year, the fewest in a decade.

Julie Wolk, an environmental health advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said the number of new cleanups beginning this year "is pathetically low."

"The Bush administration's vast underfunding of the Superfund program unacceptably puts more and more Americans at risk of toxic exposures in their own communities," she said.