The Environmental Protection Agency finished fewer Superfund cleanups this year than in recent years but is finding money to pay for more of them than anticipated.

EPA said it completed cleanups at 42 of the nation's worst toxic waste sites in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, down from 47 in the previous 12 months and an average of 76 sites annually during the Clinton administration.

Federal funds went to all but a dozen of the 1,238 sites considered the nation's worst contaminated areas. Five of those unfunded sites, including three cleanups just beginning, didn't need the money, EPA said.

After EPA's inspector general said 33 projects hadn't received federal money three-quarters into the fiscal year, congressional Democrats and environmentalists accused the Bush administration of cozying up to polluters. Twenty-one of those 33 projects subsequently received funding.

"It's essential to remember that the polluter is still paying at the vast majority of Superfund sites,'' Marianne Horinko, the EPA assistant administrator who oversees the Superfund program, said in an interview Tuesday. "We spent every dollar we could on cleanups. The challenge is spreading that budget over some of the more complex sites we now face.''

Horinko said officials "scoured'' old and expired contracts to come up with $200 million and redirect it to current projects.

Julie Wolk of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization, said EPA "may have partially solved the problem'' but appears to be making do by spreading money more thinly than what regional offices wanted.

EPA's year-end tallies for the annual $3 billion Superfund program were provided to The Associated Press. Congress created the program in 1980 to find and clean up the worst areas nationwide, but it has not resolved the uncertainty stemming from the 1995 expiration of a special tax to help pay for the cleanups.

Money from the tax has gone into a special trust fund that is almost exhausted and which, together with general tax revenues, is currently paying for $1.3 billion in program costs. The other $1.7 billion comes from companies found responsible for polluting the sites.

EPA officials said the decline in cleanups finished this year was due to their size and complexity, explaining that the number of completed cleanups doesn't reflect the pace of overall work. Most cleanups require several years.

"Sites that were less complex were the first to be cleaned up'' during former President Clinton's last term in office, Horinko said. "The tougher sites have been left for last. They may cover a huge watershed, they may have very complex sediment issues or they may have very large groundwater pollution.''

She said the seven cleanups that were denied federal funds even though they could have used the money were given lower priority because they currently pose fewer health and environmental risks at this stage of their cleanups.

They include Continental Steel Corp.'s old scrap steel yard, which is leaking PCBs into groundwater and soil in Kokomo, Ind.; and the Elizabeth Mine, an abandoned copper mine that is contaminating surface water flowing into rivers near Stafford and Thetford, Vt.