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 cleaned 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.
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.
Last 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. Those efforts, in many cases, made it unnecessary to add the sites to the Superfund list.
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.
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. The final or proposed federal Superfund list includes 786 sites.
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 on the federal list.
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 list.
Under a recent change in the ranking system, the state's priorities tilt heavily toward the sites where the most cleanup can be accomplished for the least cost--even though such dumps often pose the smallest hazard.