Energy & Environment

Seizing on Superfund

Communities with big, badly contaminated sites may have no choice but to hope the federal government rides to their rescue.
by | March 2002
 

It took two decades, but last year, Times Beach, Missouri, was finally deleted from the federal government's list of polluted locations. Once home to 4,000 people, the community no longer carries the stigma that comes with a federal Superfund designation. Not that the stigma matters. The town no longer exists. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency razed it several years ago to remove toxic dioxin and turn the land into a state park.

Not every Superfund saga ends that way. But federally run cleanups almost always bog down for years in lawsuits and red tape, so you can't blame municipal officials for wondering what an EPA decision to list a polluted site will do to prospects for keeping the local economy functioning. After 20 years of work, EPA has finished initial remediation at barely half of the 1,200 sites already on the Superfund's National Priority List.

But whether they like it or not, some communities really don't have any choice but to hope the federal government rides to their rescue. When it comes down to it, most state environmental officials will tell you that nobody else but the national government can muster the resources to rectify the most pervasive and deadly threats still lurking near many communities.

Decades ago, thoughtless mining and slipshod manufacturing littered mercury, lead, zinc, asbestos and man-made compounds down valleys, into riverbeds and along lake bottoms. People who live nearby will spend years more wondering whether their hometowns will ever again be safe places in which to live and work. Not far from Times Beach, for instance, Missouri Governor Bob Holden wants EPA to declare Herculaneum, population 2,800, a Superfund site because the nation's largest lead smelter keeps contaminating the town's houses and yards. Federal officials have proposed moving a hundred families to temporary homes, but some residents want the government to buy them out permanently.

Over in Montana this winter, Governor Judy Martz exercised the state's one-time "silver bullet" privilege to add the timber and mining town of Libby to the federal Superfund list. Martz had hesitated about this for months. Like some Libby business and community leaders, Martz had been leery that a drawn-out Superfund process would ruin the local tourist industry. But the deaths of as many as 200 Libby residents have been blamed on asbestos-bearing vermiculite ore from a mine 6 miles outside of town that shut down in 1990. Now that Martz has made a decision, EPA can proceed with an emergency three-year clean up to remove tainted tailings that townspeople once dumped in their lawns and gardens, a skating rink and high school running track. "We've pretty much come to a consensus that the only way to regain our viability as a tourist community is to get our town cleaned up," says Lincoln County Commissioner Rita Windom. "The only way to do that is to get on the Superfund list."

That's not an easy conclusion for communities to come to. Idaho Panhandle cities and counties are balking at EPA's plans to expand a 20-year-old effort to clean up the Bunker Hill silver mining and smelting complex to remove toxic sediments that have spread throughout the Coeur d'Alene River Basin. After the smelter closed down in the early 1980s, Shoshone County's property assessments plummeted from $1.3 billion to $300 million, Commissioner Sherry Krulitz recalls. "We're back up to $600 million, but it's taken 20 years, and we've still got 400 houses for sale."

Downstream from Bunker Hill, resort bookings at scenic Coeur d'Alene Lake dropped off last year after EPA announced its expanded proposal. "People say they're not going to visit a Superfund site," complains Kootenai County Commission Chairman Richard Panabaker. "We live here, and we just don't see the need for what EPA is proposing. Look at Mount St. Helens; it's coming back by itself."

As an alternative to Superfund, county officials prefer a state proposal for a more limited cleanup, possibly overseen by a federal- state-local commission. That would not guarantee a complete, or necessarily more efficient, remedy for the hazards. Many states now operate capable cleanup programs, but even they shy away from tackling the most complicated mega sites that can cost $140 million, 10 times the normal Superfund operation. With big sites still cropping up, Superfund cleanups will keep costing taxpayers $1.5 billion annually for at least another decade; and states simply can't match EPA's funding or its capacity to track companies down and compel them to pay for correcting contamination they've walked away from.

The way the Superfund law is currently set up, cleanups take way too long. Congress needs to funnel more resources and allow more flexible procedures for both federal and state decontamination efforts. But states with the weakest programs are also the most likely to balk when EPA proposes a new listing. Whatever stigma Superfund carries, states and communities risk a lot more if they use that as an excuse for shrugging off real and persistent environmental hazards.

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