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Cleanup of Toxic Wastes Will Be Halted at 33 Superfund Sites

July 02, 2002|VICKI KEMPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration plans to stop the cleanup of toxic wastes at 33 federally designated Superfund sites in 19 states, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report released Monday.

Among the sites that have received no federal cleanup funds this fiscal year are a chemical plant in New Jersey that produced Agent Orange, two abandoned mines in Montana and the northeast Denver site of a former smelting operation, according to the report, which was released by two Democratic members of Congress.

Regional EPA authorities requested and received some federal cleanup funds for four of California's 36 priority Superfund sites. They requested no funds for continued work at the other sites, including four designated areas in North Hollywood, Burbank and Glendale, where the San Fernando Valley groundwater basin is contaminated with chemical solvents used in aerospace and defense manufacturing.

The report by the inspector general's office of the EPA highlighted that financial responsibility for the shrinking number of cleanups will soon shift completely from oil and chemical companies to all taxpayers.

But the EPA's chief spokesman strongly rebutted that reading of the report, calling it "a snapshot in time" that does not accurately reflect how the agency's decisions "evolve through the fiscal year."

The situation at about 15 of the 33 non-funded sites has changed, the spokesman, Joe Martyak, said. Three of the sites may not need additional funds, for example, two sites will get requested funding, and officials at some sites have decided they can't use the money this year.

"We're still spending as much money as we were before, $1.2 billion per year," Martyak said. "We still very much believe in the 'polluter pays' system," he said.

However, the source of cleanup funds for the remaining sites has shifted dramatically, he acknowledged.

When Congress created the Superfund in 1980 to pay to clean sites where the polluter cannot be identified or refused to pay, it levied a tax on oil and chemical companies. But Congress allowed the Superfund tax to expire in 1995, and the fund balance has shrunk from its high of $3.8 billion in 1996 to a projected total of just $28 million next year.

The tax is "on everyone in an industry, so that even those who have the best of environmental records are also paying," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman told a congressional hearing this year.

As a result, funds for future cleanup efforts at orphan sites must come from general tax revenue.

During President Clinton's second term, Superfund cleanups were completed at an average of 87 sites each year, according to the office of Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). Under the Bush administration, 47 sites were cleaned up in 2001, and 40 are expected to be finished this year, according to communications among Whitman, Dingell and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.).

But EPA's Martyak said those numbers were misleading. "We're dealing now with larger, more complex sites," he said.

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