The Superfund program is in trouble. The massive federal program to clean up old dump sites is costing billions but is not achieving its goals, according to Dr. Joel Hirschhorn, project director for a study of Superfund being conducted by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an arm of the U.S. Congress.
The OTA "SUPERFUND IMPLEMENTATION STUDY" will be released next month. Dr. Hirschhorn says the goal of the study is "to understand whether there is a coherent, efficient, and effective national strategy for cleaning up contaminated sites." He told Congress, "We have disturbing information to report.... Large amounts of money are being spent, and in too many cases little protection of public health and the environment is being obtained."
Superfund is a federal program to clean up old toxic dump sites. The program is run by EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). In 1986 Congress set cleanup goals for the program, embodying them in the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) which requires "eliminating contamination from soil and groundwater expeditiously, effectively, permanently, and without transferring risk from one community to another."
SARA clearly spelled out that EPA is supposed to use "permanent" cleanup methods "to the maximum extent practicable." The law clearly intended to steer EPA away from its usual practise of digging up wastes at one leaking landfill and burying them in another landfill which would eventually begin to leak, a practise Dr. Hirschhorn calls "a shell game." SARA was also clearly intended to prevent the EPA from relying on "containment" of wastes at existing sites; containment involves digging deep trenches in the ground around landfills and filling the trenches with wet clay (so-called "slurry walls"). Containment may also involve placing a clay cap over a landfill, to act as an umbrella to keep rain out, to reduce the likelihood that toxic wastes will be carried off-site by water. Obviously "containment" methods are not permanent remedies for toxic wastes--they simply put off the day when off-site contamination will occur, thus passing today's problem on to our children.
Dr. Hirschhorn testified that by 1991 more than $10 billion will have been spent by the Superfund program. However, in 1987 (latest year for which data are available) 42% of remedial actions approved by EPA involved land disposal and containment, not permanent cleanup. Incineration-a permanent remedy--was approved in 19% of cases. Chemical solidification and stabilization was approved in 10%; however, as Dr. Hirschhorn told Congress, chemical solidification and stabilization "have not been proved to detoxify or destroy hazardous substances."
To request a copy of the forthcoming OTA study, contact Dr.
Hirschhorn at Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress,
Washington, DC 20510-8025; phone (202) 228-6361.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: sara; studies; findings; epa; joe; hirschhorn; ota; congress; remedial action; trenches; landfilling; incineration; solidification; toxicity;