Stop Superfund Waste

By Reilly, Bernard J. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Stop Superfund Waste


Reilly, Bernard J., Issues in Science and Technology


President Clinton's economic plan is a clear attempt to re-order federal spending priorities by putting more money into "investments" that will spur economic growth and increase national wealth, while cutting unproductive activities. One important way he could further his agenda would be to push for reform of one of today's most misguided efforts: the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program. The President has already paid lip service to this goal, telling business leaders in a February 11 speech at the White House that, "We all know it doesn't work--the Superfund has been a disaster."

Superfund, created by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) in the wake of the emergency at the Love Canal landfill in Niagara Falls, New York, was designed as a $1.6-billion program to contain the damage from and eventually clean up a limited number of the nation's most dangerous abandoned toxic waste sites. But in short order it has evolved into an open-ended and costly crusade to return potentially thousands of sites to a near-pristine condition. The result is a large and unjustifiable waste of our nation's resources at the expense of other critical societal needs.

No one questions that the nation has a major responsibility to deal with hazardous waste sites that pose a serious risk to public health and the environment. It is the manner and means by which the federal government has pursued this task, however, that are wasteful. Superfund legislation has given the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency powerful incentives and great clout to seek the most comprehensive, "permanent" cleanup remedies possible--without regard to cost or even the degree to which public health is at risk. Although the EPA does not always choose the most expensive remedial solution, there is strong evidence that, in many cases, waste sites can be cleaned up or sufficiently contained or isolated for a fraction of the cost, while still protecting the public and the environment. Further, EPA's selection of "priority" cleanup sites has been haphazard at best. Indeed, it has no system in place for determining which of those sites--or the many potential sites it has not yet characterized--pose the greatest dangers.

A 180-degree turn in policy is needed. When the Superfund program comes up for reauthorization next year, Congress should direct the EPA to abandon its pursuit of idealistic cleanup solutions and focus the program on practical risk reduction, targeting those sites that pose the greatest health risks and tying the level and cost of cleanup to the degree of actual risk. Only by making such a fundamental change can the nation maximize the benefits of its increasingly huge investment in the remediation of hazardous waste sites.

Costs are escalating

Estimates for cleaning up, under current practice, the more than 1,200 sites on the EPA's "national priority list" (NPL) range from $32 billion by EPA (based on a $27 million per-site cost) to $60 billion by researchers at the University of Tennessee (based on a $50 million per-site cleanup cost). These estimates are likely to be well below the ultimate cost, since EPA can add an unlimited number of sites to the list. The agency plans to add about 100 sites a year, bringing the total by the year 2000 to more than 2,100. But more than 30,000 inactive waste sites are being considered for cleanup and the universe of potential sites has been estimated at about 75,000. Most experts believe that far fewer--from 2,000 to 10,000--will eventually be cleaned up. The University of Tennessee researchers make a best guess of 3,000 sites, which would put the cost at $150 billion (in 1990 dollars) over 30 years, not including legal fees.

This $150 billion might be acceptable if the U.S. economy were buoyant and limitless funds existed for other needs. It most certainly would be justified if many sites posed unacceptable dangers to the public. …

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