May 27, 1997
by Neil S. Milligan
A corruption of the familiar "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," seems to be steering national environmental policy: "If it works for the populace, we'd better change it." One can cynically imagine the behind-closed-doors discussion between industry lobbyists and public servants in Washington: "Well, buddy, I know it may save some lives, but we have too many poor people anyway. These theoretical health benefits are cutting into real profits, and the shareholders won't stand for it."
Some of us thought that politicians would at least show some temporary restraint and moral rectitude; that they would be a little bit discomfited over the last Congress, which was so blatant about letting lobbyist-supporters write the texts of pro-industry bills. Just a pipe-dream, I'm afraid. The latest assault that has been brought to the forefront is a bill to gut Superfund, turning it into another unimposing paper-only piece of legislation.
In 1980, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA. This act, also called "Superfund," began a government cleanup of hazardous waste dumps in the United States, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 and its 1984 amendments declare a waste to be hazardous if it corrodes other materials; explodes; is easily ignited; reacts strongly with water; is unstable to heat or shock; or is poisonous. Poisonous wastes are commonly called toxic wastes.) The intent of this law is to identify sites contaminated with hazardous waste and rank them by priority; design a satisfactory cleanup plan, allowing input from the public and local authorities; and determine which companies are financially responsible for repairing the environmental damage they created. The act provided $1.6 billion to clean up hazardous toxic-waste sites and prosecute violators. A 1986 act reauthorized Superfund and provided an additional $9 billion.
Superfund works. It effectively ranks the dangers of a potential site, cooperatively with community and State input and without questionable politics tainting the results. Superfund is fiscally sound; overhead is low in projects when compared to similar work in the private sector. Superfund allows cleanup of hazardous waste to proceed while identifying responsible parties and soliciting their participation, yet businesses are not pilloried in the process. The requirements of Superfund, including the taxes that pay for orphaned-site cleanups, are obviously not burdensome if virtually every major corporation is currently reporting record profits. There is already enough quantification, specifically the number-score of the Hazard Ranking System, without introducing questionable science. The question to answer is "Can we leave the environment too clean for future generations?"
Senate Bill 8 will, if passed, neutralize Superfund's oversight and enforcement features, leaving industry in total control of cleanups and literally cutting out the public and the public servants at EPA. This bill will unacceptably weaken a program designed to safeguard citizens from incidental and accidental exposure of hazardous chemicals. Some particularly onerous points:
o Unless groundwater at a site is identified as a future drinking water source, cleanups don't have to protect it. So if someone guesses wrong about future water needs, municipalities could end up having to upgrade to expensive treatment systems rather than being able to pump clean water. Groundwater should be protected as a valuable trust under the assumption that sooner or later we will need to access it as our communities grow. The defined "site" for cleanup is only the industrial area itself, and it only has to be cleaned up to the level of an industrial site. Thus, if there is a school or a neighborhood next door (very common, as we know), the industry doing the cleanup does not have to consider that fact and does not have to do enough of a cleanup to make that area safe.
o It tilts rational risk assessments and so endangers especially sensitive citizens, namely the young and the elderly. The levels of toxins our children are exposed to are more significant in relation to their body weight, plus the effects have more serious consequences during this time of formative growth. Our parents and grandparents are often beset with other physical infirmities that can be dangerously aggravated by the increased toxic burden.
o Only 100 additional sites can be added to the Superfund program through the year 2001, and a maximum of 10 per year thereafter -- regardless of whether there are other, non-Superfund, programs for cleaning them up. (The General Accounting Office reports that states have trouble funding their existing cleanup programs, and anyone knows that environmental stewardship does not receive priority funding in Alabama.)
For those few sites per year that can be added to the record, the state must first approve its listing. If the Alabama Department of Environmental Management decides that it does not have a sufficient budget -- or if its management feels political pressure -- it can prevent listing of new Superfund sites in Alabama. By restricting the number of sites allowed on the National Priorities List (NPL), the facts will not change. If each state were arbitrarily limited to five NPL sites, Alabama citizens living near the places left off the attached list would still be exposed to unsafe levels of pollution.
o Responsible parties are allowed to write their own cleanup plans, and EPA gets only 180 days to review them or they will be fully authorized by default. Liability is waived for all such sites, even if problems remain. This applies not only to new decisions, but also to existing plans. The pace and effectiveness of cleanup programs will be jeopardized if polluters are allowed to petition EPA to reopen existing decisions and administratively appeal new ones. Cleanups would stop while lawyers re-argue the details of a particular site. Reopening cleanup decisions could undermine a community's input on past judgments, and substituting "exposure controls" for actual cleanup will produce an inferior result.
o According to this bill, a site can be removed from the Superfund list as soon as the industry responsible for cleaning it up has the infrastructure in place. They don't have to clean up one ounce of toxic material; they just have to put the pumps in. This would count as a "site removed from the Superfund list," and this bit of circular reasoning means that if the cleanup was never completed, the site cannot be put back on because only a limited number can be added to the list.
o Contrarily, it even limits funding for research and design into new treatment technologies. The EPA already encourages revising cleanup decisions when good science suggests methods that will save time and money. However with no assurances for equivalent protection, cleanups implemented solely on the basis of cost savings would end up being more expensive to future generations who must later face this contamination.
This proposed law circumvents the aim and intent of Superfund: public participation, government oversight, and polluter responsibility. Recently Congress has tended to promote and require more responsibility from Americans, for example work and welfare requirements. It only makes sense to hold corporate citizens to that same ideal. (Jeff Sessions is reportedly in favor of S.8's passage; how anyone could justify that must be a tale in itself.)
However, S.8 puts industry in charge and allows toxic waste sites to be cleaned up by definition and only on paper. For the millions of people living in, next to or near such sites, reality will not change. These limited "quick fixes" cannot provide reliable protection to public health and the environment over the long term. They only obligate future generations with expensive remedies for problems caused by today's profit-taking.
Superfund works -- we only have to look at nearby Saraland and Pensacola to see that it does -- but it only works if we-the-people keep an eye on things.
Site Name: CIBA-GEIGY CORP. (MCINTOSH PLANT)
Location: Washington County -- McIntosh
EPA ID# : ALD001221902
Site Name: PERDIDO GROUNDWATER CONTAMINATION
Location: Baldwin County -- Perdido
EPA ID# : ALD980728703
Site Name: REDWING CARRIERS, INC. (SARALAND)
Location: Mobile County -- Saraland
EPA ID# : ALD980844385
Site Name: STAUFFER CHEMICAL CO. (LE MOYNE PLANT)
Location: Mobile County -- 20 miles north of Mobile
EPA ID# : ALD008161176
Site Name: T.H. AGRICULTURAL & NUTRITION COMPANY (MONTGOMERY PLANT)
Location: Montgomery County -- West of Maxwell Air Force Base
EPA ID# : ALD007454085
Site Name: ALABAMA ARMY AMMUNITION PLANT
Location: Talladega County -- East of the Coosa River, north of Childersburg
EPA ID# : AL6210020008
Site Name: ANNISTON ARMY DEPOT (SOUTHEAST INDUSTRIAL AREA)
Location: Calhoun County -- Anniston
EPA ID# : AL3210020027
Site Name: INTERSTATE LEAD COMPANY (ILCO)
Location : Jefferson County -- Leeds
EPA ID# : ALD041906173
Site Name: MONARCH TILE MANUFACTURING, INC.
Location: Lauderdale County -- Florence
EPA ID# : ALD067102301
Site Name: MOWBRAY ENGINEERING COMPANY
Location: Butler County -- Greenville
EPA ID# : ALD031618069Y
Site Name: OLIN CORP. (MCINTOSH PLANT)
Location: Washington County -- McIntosh
EPA ID# : ALD008188708
Site Name: REDSTONE ARSENAL (USARMY/NASA)
Location: Madison County -- Huntsville
EPA ID# : AL7210020742
Site Name: STAUFFER CHEMICAL CO. (COLD CREEK PLANT)
Location: Mobile County -- Twenty miles north of Mobile
EPA ID# : ALD095688875
Site Name: TRIANA/TENNESSEE RIVER
Location: Madison County -- Triana, near Huntsville
EPA ID# : ALD983166299