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EPA Switch Allows Sale of PCB-Tainted Sites

September 03, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has quietly allowed the sale of properties contaminated with PCBs, reversing a 25-year-old policy aimed at protecting people from exposure to the highly toxic chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the change would speed the redevelopment, and possibly even the cleanup, of former military installations and other hazardous sites.

Environmental activists and congressional Democrats warned that the action removed a needed incentive to clean contaminated properties and could result in some properties being redeveloped while still tainted.

Under the old rules, said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the federal government in effect oversaw the transfer of PCB-contaminated properties because the properties could not be sold until the seller proved that the PCBs were gone. Now, she warned, that protection seemed to be lost.

"I can't believe they would ease the rules around one of the most persistent and dangerous chemicals known to mankind," Boxer said. "This administration is really waging war against our health."

Boxer, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, promised to raise the issue at the confirmation hearing of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, Bush's nominee to head the EPA. She also said she would introduce legislation to reverse the EPA action.

Environmentalists also complained that the change, which took effect in the middle of last month, was made without involving or even informing the public. The EPA released information about its new policy Tuesday, after a story about it appeared in USA Today.

PCBs were used for decades as coolants and lubricants in electronic equipment, paint, dyes and many other industrial and commercial products. Congress considered them so dangerous to humans that they were the only chemical substances specifically banned as part of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, or Superfund act.

Tests on animals have shown that PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) cause cancer and can damage immune, reproductive and nervous systems. Studies suggest that humans can be similarly affected. More than 900 families were forced to leave the community of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., 25 years ago because of fear of the effects of PCB contamination.

An Aug. 14 memo from the EPA's general counsel about the policy change cites the transfer of the former Navy facility on Mare Island in Northern California to the city of Vallejo as an example of PCB contamination hindering the redevelopment of valuable land.

But that property was transferred in March, before the cleanup. EPA's old policy allowed the sale of a property if EPA had first approved a cleanup plan. State and EPA officials approved the cleanup plan for Mare Island last year, according to EPA officials in California.

"The PCBs issue did not significantly delay the transfer," said Katherine Taylor, an associate director of EPA's Region 9 office, which covers California. "However, it complicated the transfer."

Taylor said the EPA was not aware of any other completed or potential sales or transfers of contaminated property in California where PCBs had been an issue. EPA officials did not cite any examples of cases where the previous policy had prevented redevelopment or was currently blocking redevelopment. But the Aug. 14 memo stressed that the desire to stimulate redevelopment provided the motivation for the policy change.

"[T]he agency is deeply concerned that its previous interpretation of [the Superfund law] could frustrate the intent of the law to encourage the cleanup and return to productive use of contaminated or potentially-contaminated properties," reads the memo, which was signed by EPA general counsel Robert E. Fabricant, who left the agency at the end of last month.

Many environmental groups said they were taken by surprise by the change and could not tell what impact it would have.

But Julie Wolk, environmental health advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which represents many organizations in states, said that "taking away one of the few protections we have against some of the most dangerous chemicals in the world is not good for public health."

"It takes away the incentive to clean up property," Wolk said. Under the old rules, "you were stuck with it until it was clean."

But EPA spokeswoman Lisa Harrison said that "the buyers still are responsible for the cleanup of the sites."

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