May 21-28, 2007

U.S. Superfund program struggles to cleanup toxic waste sites

Toxic waste still plagues American communities 27 years after the U.S. government created its Superfund program to classify and clean up the country's worst toxic waste sites. Fewer than one out every five Superfund sites has been cleaned up, and the polluter-pay policy has increasingly been replaced by "taxpayer-pay," says the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington DC-based nonprofit group of investigative journalists reporting on issues of public concern.

The group's report, titled "Wasting Away: Superfund's Toxic Legacy," is based on analysis of a confidential Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) document, plus information from an EPA database. It reveals the beleaguered state of the EPA's Superfund effort, lists the top 100 companies and government agencies linked to 700, or more than 40%, of the most contaminated sites and tracks the slowdown in cleanup progress.

Among other things, the Center reports that the land mass of these 700 sites is twice the size of the combined area of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. And nearly half of all Americans live within ten miles of the 1,304 active and proposed Superfund sites listed by the EPA.

The report says the amount of money EPA recouped from polluters annually to pay for cleanups plummeted from $320 million in 1999 to $60 million in 2006. In addition, the Agency's 2007 target for "construction complete" sites, with cleanup systems in place, was 40, but has been scaled back to 24. The EPA's 2008 budget sets a target of 30 sites.

The Center's analysis of the EPA's internal list of potentially responsible parties (PRPs) also makes public for the first time the nearly 100 companies and federal government agencies connected to the 700 sites, based on the number of sites at which they are involved. More than half the companies on the list were ranked among the Fortune 1,000 or the Global 500 in 2006. In addition, the responsible companies disclosed spending more than $1 billion to lobby the federal government and also contributed more than $120 million to federal candidates for public office between 1998 and 2005.

Honeywell International, Chevron and General Electric were the three top companies, in terms of the number of Superfund sites linked to them: 128, 122 and 116, respectively. GE is responsible for the largest Superfund site, the Hudson River. For most of these sites, other companies were also listed as PRPs. The list named 35 companies as the lone PRP for at least one Superfund site and the federal government as the sole PRP in 36 instances. Of the total number of sites, 179 had only one polluter.

The Center's report notes that some companies have challenged the EPA list because it is based solely on the number of sites. On that basis, a company may be listed as a PRP for a site even though it was responsible for only a small portion of the toxic waste at the site and may one among dozens or even hundreds of PRPs for that site.

The PRP list also connects the U.S. federal government to 225 sites, with government departments and agencies levied more than $1.8 million in fines and penalties in connection with Superfund sites. Defence-related agencies such as the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard were linked to over 80% of the 225 sites, but even the EPA itself and other agencies charged with environmental conservation, such as the U.S. Forest Service, were found to be linked to Superfund sites.

The Center further found that there has been a sharp reduction in the number of cleanup activities started at Superfund sites during the first six years of the Bush administration, compared to the last six years of the Clinton administration--388 compared to 145. Moreover, construction was completed at an average of only 42 sites per year during the Bush administration, compared to 79 during the Clinton administration.

The "Wasting Away" Web site, www.publicintegrity.org/Superfund/, features an interactive list of all 1,623 Superfund sites (active, proposed and deleted). It is searchable by company and state, detailing location, status, size, types of contaminants and nearby population.

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