WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Thursday accused the Bush administration of withholding key details about toxic waste sites that present risks of exposure to nearby residents.
At a congressional hearing, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the Environmental Protection Agency had designated as confidential the details of about 140 Superfund sites where toxic exposure remained uncontrolled.
Boxer and other Democrats said the secret data included information about how much money and time it would take to clean up the dangerous sites, including one site where the EPA predicted it would take 26 years to close off access to toxics.
"This isn't a question of left or right," Boxer said, waving a document marked "Privileged" by EPA officials to prevent its release to the public. "This is a question of right and wrong."
The EPA said that it had blocked only information related to law enforcement and that the public had access to all relevant health-risk data for the sites, seven of which are in California.
"There is far more information available for each [high-priority] site than has ever been available before," said Susan Parker Bodine, the assistant administrator responsible for the Superfund program, which was designed to clean up toxic waste sites such as chemical dumping grounds and contaminated factories.
Republicans said Democrats were trying to manufacture a political issue, and noted that Senate tradition had long prevented the release of sensitive information.
They also said they feared that Democrats were seeking to reinstate a controversial tax in which chemical manufacturers and other companies were forced to pay a fee to contribute to cleaning up waste sites, even if the firms played no role in creating the mess.
"This tax would fall on businesses already paying for their own cleanup or that had never created any kind of a Superfund site," said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate environment committee. "It would put a burden on those companies."
Democrats have routinely accused the Bush administration of restricting access to information designed to protect the public. One Republican-sponsored bill moving through Congress would limit data available on toxic substances released into communities, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has blocked information on flooding dangers in Florida.
Thursday's hearing of the Superfund and waste management subcommittee was the first in four years. The Superfund program was created almost three decades ago in response to environmental disasters such as Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where chemical contamination forced the removal of 800 families and led to $200 million in remediation costs.
The cleanup effort has drawn criticism ever since, from environmentalists who claim it is underfunded and too slow, and from industry officials who say it is costly and punitive.
Bodine said that the agency had made significant progress, but that larger, more costly projects -- including many of the 140 sites at issue at Thursday's hearing -- take more time to remediate.
Those sites are areas where the public still faces some possible exposure to toxic substances -- such as a building near buried radioactive waste that was not surrounded by a fence. A skateboard park built over the site, however, was protected by a layer of dirt.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said he was disturbed by some of the answers from Bodine, who at times appeared flustered and at a loss for words under the Democrats' questions. New Jersey, with 20, has the highest number of sites with uncontrolled exposure.
The EPA's decision to withhold information is "nonsense, and everybody knows it's nonsense," Lautenberg said. "It's deceptive."
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Seven California sites on the national Superfund list still present a risk of exposure to residents. The Environmental Protection Agency has refused to release details on such areas.
Ft. Ord, Marina
* Lava Cap Mine, Nevada City
* McCormick & Baxter Creosoting Co., Stockton
* Montrose Chemical Corp., Torrance
* Omega Chemical Corp., Whittier
* Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine, Clearlake
* United Heckathorn Co., Richmond
Los Angeles Times