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Cleanup Programs Making Gains Despite Delays, Officials Say

March 31, 1985|MYRON LEVIN | Times Staff Writer

In four years, the federal Superfund program has finished cleaning only six priority toxic waste sites. California's 3 1/2-year-old Superfund has managed to clean only four.

But officials say these seemingly damning statistics overlook significant accomplishments by the Superfunds and by companion state and federal programs to control hazardous wastes.

Florence Pearson, a public affairs officer with the state health department's toxic substances control division, which runs the state Superfund program, said cleanup work is in progress or about to begin at at least 13 state Superfund sites. Agency officials have announced a goal of completing cleanup at a minimum of 10 Superfund sites this year.

During the past fiscal year, there were 75 cases in which private firms performed cleanup work under orders from the state, or in which emergency cleanups were done by state contractors, according to figures provided by the toxic substances division. Pearson said that these efforts in many cases made it unnecessary to add the sites to the Superfund list.

Work at 134 Sites

Carol Lawson, an information officer with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, said that as of Dec. 31 cleanup was under way at 134 federal Superfund sites throughout the nation.

Lawson also said it should be expected that corrective work at many sites will take years to complete. She said there are "long-term, heavy-duty sites that are going to cost $7 million or $8 million to clean up--and take three or four years at a minimum--if no ground water contamination is found, and much, much longer and much more expensive if there is."

The $1.6-billion federal program, financed mainly by a tax on production of petroleum and chemicals, expires at the end of the year, but is almost certain to be extended at a higher funding level. So far, 786 sites have been placed on the final or proposed federal Superfund list--including four eastern San Fernando Valley water well fields. The list is expanded periodically as more dumps are analyzed and ranked.

The state program, set up in 1981 to provide matching funds for federal cleanup work in California, has developed its own roster of 180 priority dumps, of which about one-third are also on the federal list. Initially financed by a $10-million-a-year tax on hazardous wastes, the state program got $100 million richer when voters approved a bond issue in the fall.

Remedial Work

Under both the state and federal programs, remedial work is supposed to be done by "responsible parties": dump operators or owners, and firms that produced or transported the hazardous wastes. But, if those responsible can't be found or are unable or unwilling to pay, the government can use Superfund money to proceed with cleanup, and later can sue those responsible to recover costs and damages.

Dumps make the federal Superfund list status by scoring high on a numerical system that rates the risk of air and water pollution and the threat to human health.

Although the state program also uses a scoring system to set cleanup priorities, any site where there has been a documented release of toxic materials may be eligible for Superfund status.

Angelo Bellomo, chief of the Southern California section of the toxic substances control division, acknowledged that the looser state criteria assure that some relatively minor sites make the state Superfund list.

At the same time, he said, the state is focusing on the "entire forest, as opposed to a couple of giant Sequoias that are in that forest."

Change in Ranking

Under a recent change in the ranking system, the state's cleanup priorities tilt heavily toward the sites where the most cleanup can be accomplished for the least cost--even though such dumps are often the ones that pose the smallest hazard.

The previous ranking system, which like the federal system gave priority to the most contaminated sites, "effectively stymied" state action on dumps "that could be remediated relatively quickly," explained a recent report to the Legislature.

Under the new policy, "some relatively innocuous sites end up being way up on the list because you end up getting a lot of public health benefit per dollar," said Jim Smith, manager of bond enforcement for the Southern California section of the toxic substances division.

One site in this category is a Southern Pacific Transportation Co. right of way in North Hollywood, which ranks ninth in priority on the state list, even though it appears pollution there is minimal.

In August, 1979, employees of Hope Plastics were caught dumping four drums of liquid waste, or about 200 gallons, into holes they dug on the railroad property in the 5300 block of Strohm Avenue. Hope Plastics was taken to court by the city attorney and paid a $10,000 fine for dumping the wastes, which contained high levels of toxic toluene and some heavy metals.

Dirt Not Removed

However, neither the plastics firm nor the city or state removed the contaminated dirt. By 1981, tests showed that toluene levels in soil were barely detectable, indicating that the wastes had either evaporated, been carried away by runoff or sunk into the ground.

Now, almsot six years after the dumping, the soil is to be removed.

A Southern Pacific spokesman said the firm has agreed to pay for the work, which the state says may cost about $60,000.

The only explanation for the long delay is that previous cleanup programs did not work, Bellomo said. "They didn't work, and that's why cases like this drag on," he said.

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