Public Expectations of EPA's Superfund Program Far Exceed Its Capacities, Dunne Says

December 7, 2004
Thomas Dunne
Thomas Dunne: "A single clean-up costing nearly $700 million was not foreseen by Superfund creators,"

The nation needs a public dialogue on what to do with the Superfund program for cleaning up toxically polluted sites, which was not designed to address problems it is now routinely asked to tackle, such as the wreckage of the World Trade Center, the anthrax contamination of the Hart Senate Office Building, or the scattered debris of the Space Shuttle Columbia, according to Thomas P. Dunne, Acting Assistant Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

Joining him as panelists Dec. 2 for a discussion of the program's future were Elliott Laws, now with Campbell George & Strong in Washington, D.C., but who formerly held the same position as Mr. Dunne under the Clinton Administration; John Quarles, an environmental lawyer also formerly an official with the EPA; and Velma Smith, a senior policy analyst with the National Environmental Trust. Law professor Jon Cannon moderated.

"Old ways of looking at Superfund are out of synch with today's realities," said Dunne. "We need to rethink where we're going and how we're going to get there." Other panelists said the real topic is how to increase funding for the program.

The Superfund law was passed 24 years ago to clean up toxic residues of America's industrialization. Its three aims were to protect people from the effects of contaminated property, base clean-up decisions on health risks, and make the responsible parties pay the bill, he said.

The clean-up of Love Canal, a residential area near Niagara Falls, New York, that was built over a toxic chemical dump, is an example of how Superfund was intended to work. The project was begun in 1983 and completed in 1999. Some 40,000 cubic yards of contaminated waste were removed from the 70-acre site and 260 abandoned houses were rehabilitated and sold to new residents, all at a total cost of $180 million, which was borne by the private sector. Dunne called it "a success story."

From left, moderator Jon Cannon, Velma Smith, Elliott Laws, and John Quarles.
From left, moderator Jon Cannon, Velma Smith, Elliott Laws, and John Quarles.

A more typical site now is the Bunker Hill Mine and lead smelter in Kellogg, Idaho, where mining first began in 1889 and lead smelting operations started in 1917. The clean-up project began in 1983 with the affected 21 square miles and eight towns divided into three zones. Some 3,000 residential and 400 commercial properties in two zones are currently involved and so far 2.5 million cubic yards of material have been removed at a cost of $300 million. The third zone will require 30 years to complete at a projected cost of $360 million.

"A single clean-up costing nearly $700 million was not foreseen by Superfund creators," Dunne said, adding that it's hard to predict how many such mining sites will be added to the clean-up list in the future.

The purchasing power of Superfund dollars has shrunk as the problem sites have become more complex and costly to clean, he said. Clean-ups are complete for 44 megasites (those costing more than $50 million each) at an average cost of $63 million. The EPA is now working on 90 megasites, not counting federal facilities, each projected to cost more than $100 million. The cost of smaller sites is expected to double too, Dunne noted.

"Such harsh realities are crystal clear" to the program's administrators, he said, but the public is unaware of them. "I don't think it's widely understood how much the mission of our clean-up program has expanded over the last few years," with new pressure to face chemical, biological, and radiological threats associated with terrorism. The EPA was involved in clean-ups after oil-field fires in Kuwait, for example.

Compounding the problem is the fact that finding responsible parties who can pay for clean-ups is getting harder. Changes in law have exempted new owners from liability for earlier damage and others are seeking bankruptcy protection from liability. Some owners have simply disappeared entirely, Dunne said.

State capacity to pay a portion is also dwindling. Long-term maintenance costs borne by states are expected to grow to 30 times higher than today, he said.

"In early years we debated how clean is clean so we could design sensible and affordable clean-ups. Those days are gone. More than ever, Superfund today is saddled with extraordinarily complex, expensive sites that no one else in the public or private sector is willing or able to pay for," said Dunne. "EPA's options are severely constrained compared to 10 or 15 years ago. Last year 52 percent of our clean-up budget was invested in just nine huge sites." Unfunded clean-ups will soon total several hundred million dollars, he said.

Dunne said he was not calling for a larger Superfund budget because he is a realist who understands that new money is not likely to be available for the next several years. Meanwhile, he wondered, will "people accept the fact that some sites could be put in holding patterns for many years?"

Quarles agreed that the country confronts issues of strategy over Superfund. "Expectations for Superfund are totally out of line with its realities," he said. "The problems were not at all well understood when the first crises erupted and we started on the Superfund approach. We thought there were maybe five or six sites in the whole country and the whole job could be done for maybe $8 billion." The law initially provided for a 5-year program at $1.6 billion per year

"The Department of Defense spends more money on Superfund-type activities than the EPA and private concerns combined, and the Department of Energy spends five or 10 times what the Department of Defense spends. So we're looking at a problem where the range of situations is enormous." Most of the problem remaining today is in the public sector, he added.

"Superfund has long been criticized for spending large amounts of money on small amounts of risk," said Elliot Laws. "But it's one of the few programs where people from the federal government actually go into communities to find out what is wrong." This has the tendency to raise expectations beyond what the EPA's mandate allows. "There is a gap between what EPA can do and what these communities need."

But the fact is that Superfund is the clean-up fund of last resort, he said, so communities have nowhere else to turn, even though the program was not designed to address their sort of problem.

Velma Smith praised Dunne's assessment as "refreshingly forthright" and for "showing us the checkbook balance and how bad the funding is."

She credited the defunct Superfund tax for the successful clean-ups of the past.

"I think if enough people join hands we could increase the budget and reinstate the tax," she said. "There is a bipartisan desire in communities for clean-ups. We should use that to rally around." EPA needs to show the leadership to accomplish this, she asserted, likening a dialogue that assumes that clean-up funding stays flat to another talk "about how to move the deck chairs on the Titanic."

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