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When Superfund expenses go `mega'

These toxic cleanups are long and costly; 16 are in California.

January 26, 2007|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

FORT EDWARD, N.Y. — After the winter thaw, a huge enterprise -- so expensive and risky that it ranks among the most ambitious environmental projects on Earth -- will rise up from an abandoned cornfield in upstate New York.

Not far from Saratoga, where Americans defeated British soldiers in the Revolutionary War, 40 miles of the Hudson River will be excavated to remove hazardous compounds discharged by General Electric. The project, expected to cost more than $700 million, will rival the price of the new Yankee Stadium and remove enough toxic mud to fill the stadium twice.

Yet, despite 50,000 tests of the river sludge and three decades of review, there are no guarantees that this cleanup will succeed.

The Hudson River is one of 154 places across the country -- 16 in California -- dubbed Superfund "mega sites" because eliminating their toxic chemicals is such a big and costly job. And like this project, in which dredging could stir up even more chemicals, many of them involve huge investments in uncertain outcomes.

Mega cleanups -- those expected to cost more than $50 million -- usually last for decades. For some, there's no end in sight.

In Southern California, off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to decide the best way to immobilize a huge ocean-floor deposit of the pesticide DDT that has been poisoning fish and other marine life for decades.

Near Redding, on a mountain fractured by a huge copper and silver mine that opened in 1879, the EPA has constructed a dam and diverted a creek to try to contain a continuous flow of acids and metals that will probably go on forever.

In Butte, Mont., one mega site is so notorious that it has become a tourist attraction. At a viewing stand above an old copper mine, visitors peer into a 900-foot-deep pit of toxic waste. When migratory birds land on this brew of acids and metals, mistaking it for a watering hole, they die.

'Blight on communities'

Yet EPA officials say tackling such engineering challenges is justified because doing nothing at these super-sized toxic sites poses an even worse threat to human health, the environment and the economy.

"Usually, they are a blight on communities. In our case, the stigma of the contamination is hurting the economy of the upper Hudson," said David King, the EPA's Hudson River project manager.

Twenty-six years after Congress passed the Superfund law to clean up the nation's most dangerous dumping grounds, the list of mega sites keeps growing as more mines, landfills, military bases and factories qualify.

Superfund's national priority list includes more than 1,200 chemical sites, but only one of every eight rises to "mega" status. New Jersey leads with 18, but California's 16 megas will soon more than double, with 18 others expected to meet the $50-million mark.

"State programs can deal with garden-variety sites, but mega sites are ones that nobody but the federal government can deal with," said Katherine Probst, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank in Washington, who has researched Superfund for 15 years.

Mega cleanups averaged $140 million each in 2000, 10 times the standard Superfund project, according to Resources for the Future. California's 16 mega sites' cost estimates range from $100 million to $450 million, said Elizabeth Adams, the EPA's regional Superfund cleanup chief in San Francisco.

"Today, a real mega site is well over the $100-million mark. Sadly, $50 million may not be what it once was," Probst said.

Funding lags behind

Yet federal funding for Superfund oversight has not kept up with the surge in mega sites, and many cleanups remain in the early stages. At 22% of all sites, human exposure to chemicals is not under control, the EPA says.

Polluters pay for most cleanups, but Superfund's annual budget, which supports EPA analyses, has remained at about $1.2 billion since 1987. With inflation, that is a 40% decline.

"The Superfund program's real purchasing power has decreased dramatically at the same time that large, complex and expensive sites -- often referred to as mega sites -- make up an increasing proportion of the program's workload," Probst said at a congressional hearing in June.

What makes a site such a headache that it becomes a mega? "It's the number of contaminants, the size, how far the contamination has spread and how remote it is," Adams said.

Some, such as the Hudson River, involve one company and gigantic volumes of a single pollutant. Others, such as a Monterey Park landfill that towers over surrounding hills, have multiple chemicals and sources.

In the Northeast, many megas are old factories. But around Los Angeles, the worst are immense underground basins in which water supplies, polluted by industrial solvents, have had decades of pumping and treatment. The San Gabriel Valley aquifer is the state's most expensive mega cleanup, expected to reach at least $450 million.

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