Big guns in industry and government are aiming to kill the 12-year-old Superfund program, the multi-billion-dollar federal effort to clean up old chemical dumps. NEWSWEEK fired the opening salvo in the summer of 1989, calling Superfund sites "boring"--a code word for NOT WORTH THE MONEY WE'RE SPENDING TO PROTECT NEARBY RESIDENTS. EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] appears to be helping Superfund critics by running a corrupt, wasteful, inefficient and ineffective program, all the while claiming great success. October 17, 1989, EPA issued a press release with the headline, "EPA Achieves Superfund Milestones." The press release announced that cleanups had begun at 254 sites. "The Superfund program is making significant progress," EPA chief William Reilly said. "These accomplishments are results-oriented. They reflect my management initiatives, which make cleaning up sites... our highest Superfund priority."
Two years later, the NEW YORK TIMES reported at length on Superfund (June 16, 1991, Section 3, pgs. 1, 6), revealing that only 60 Superfund sites had been cleaned up despite expenditures and commitments of $11.5 BILLION since 1981. (That's $191 million per cleanup.) The WASHINGTON POST clarified the matter three days later (pgs. A1, A14), pointing out that actual expenditures were only $7.5 BILLION and that really 64 sites had been cleaned up--so the actual cost per site was only $117 million.
To be fair, these costs-per-cleanup are not accurate because money has been spent conducting studies at many other sites. But in a sense, that is the Superfund problem. A whole industry has been created to study Superfund dumps, with little actual success cleaning anything up.
The TIMES said the official Superfund list in June, 1991, included 1126 sites but also revealed EPA's estimate of "other potentially hazardous sites" included 32,645 sites. So, despite massive expenditures and hundreds of fat, expensive studies, Superfund has accomplished little, and compared to the size of the problem, it has accomplished almost nothing. "Lawyers and consultants are the only ones cleaning up," quipped one critic.
Critics of Superfund in industry and government are now using these sorry statistics to gather their forces for a major assault on the Superfund program itself. But Congress hasn't yet shown much stomach for a fight on this issue. In the dead of night and without public discussion--Congress reauthorized Superfund for another five years in late fall 1990, so no real debate will take place until 1993 or 1994, when people begin to gear up for the next Superfund reauthorization, which will be needed in 1995.
In the meantime, real people are living near real chemical dumps. Many of them are frightened to death. Their property has lost its value entirely, in the sense that no one in their right mind would buy it. These victims are thus imprisoned in a toxic nightmare. Highly-paid consultants in moon suits take soil samples, separated by only a chain-link fence from play areas used by children whose parents are trapped and powerless because they have lost the only thing of real value that they ever owned--their home.
Is fear of chemical dumps justified? The National Research
Council of the National Academy of Sciences recently published an
excellent book-length study that tries to answer that
question. The National Academy recently issued a short essay
by Anthony B. Miller, the project leader of the study. We reprint
it here verbatim. Dr. Miller is a professor in the Department of
Preventive Medicine and Biostatistics at University of Toronto.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: superfund; national academy; epa; william reilly; superfund reauthorization; national research council; nrc-nas;