EPA Under Fire for Underfunding Superfund Clean-ups

The Bush administration is coming under attack from congressional Democrats for holding back money to clean up dozens of Superfund toxic waste sites in at least 18 states.

A report by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general disclosed that 33 toxic waste projects would not get additional money from a special Superfund cleanup fund, and that a dozen other sites had funding curtailed.

While the EPA previously announced planned cutbacks in the toxic waste cleanup program, the IG report, made public Monday by Democratic members of Congress, for the first time indicated which sites were most affected.

But senior EPA officials called the IG list misleading.

The list reflected "a snapshot in time" and "a lot of these sites could end up getting money" later this year, EPA spokesman Joe Martyak said. "It's not as bleak as they make it sound."

Nevertheless, the report produced a flurry of criticism from congressional Democrats.

The Bush plan, which would require taxpayer dollars instead of industry to assume more cleanup activities at these sites, "rejects the concept of polluter pays" to the benefit of the polluting industries, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., head of the Senate subcommittee dealing with Superfund, accused the administration of "cozying up to big polluters" and "walking away" from cleanup commitments.

Democrats argued for reinstatement of the Superfund tax, levied on oil and chemical companies, to replenish the fund used to clean up "orphan" sites where those who committed the pollution are either out of business or can't be found.

"The lack of a Superfund tax "seriously undermines" the program, said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., whose state has more Superfund sites than any other.

But the Bush administration has argued against reinstating the tax. In congressional testimony earlier this year, Whitman called the tax unfair because it applied to "everyone in an industry, so that even those that have the best of environmental records are also paying."

On Monday, Whitman said the Superfund program "continues to be a priority of this administration." She attributed the drop-off in the number of completed sites -- about half as many each year as during the Clinton administration -- to the increased complexity of some of the projects.

"The easy ones have all been done," she said.

Martyak said the EPA is "committed to the polluter pays" concept. He said 70 percent of all the cleanups are paid for by those who did the damage.

The Superfund projects singled out in the IG report for cutbacks are among the country's most polluted sites. They include several old mines in Montana, a wood preservative plant in Louisiana, chemical plants in Florida and a New Jersey plant that once made the herbicide Agent Orange, the IG report said.

The 1980 Superfund law says polluters should pay to clean up their own environmental mess. If not, the cleanup fund assumes the cost. But since the tax expired in 1995, the fund has dwindled from a high of $3.6 billion to a projected $28 million at the end of next year.

The projects cited by the IG as having been cut off from the fund include five sites in Florida, five in New Jersey, three in Texas, and two each in Nebraska, Montana, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The other states, each with one site, are Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia. There also is one in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The EPA's regional offices have requested $450 million for remedial actions at 77 sites that sought additional funding, but only $224 million was allocated, the IG report said. In addition to the 33 sites that got no money from the fund, another 12 sites received less than what was requested.

The EPA also allocated $33.2 million for long-term remediation at 54 sites, about 70 percent of what had been requested by regional offices, the IG reported.