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Communities across America face a daunting threat from hazardous waste sites — some near neighborhoods and schools — 27 years after the federal government launched the landmark Superfund program to wipe out the problem, a Center for Public Integrity investigation has found.

Initiated in 1980, Superfund is desperately short of money to clean up abandoned waste sites, which has created a backlog of sites that continue to menace the environment and, quite often, the health of nearby residents.

Nearly half of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of one of the 1,304 active and proposed Superfund sites listed by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Center’s analysis of these sites and U.S. Census data of the 2000 population.

In its investigation, the Center reviewed data, obtained from the EPA through more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests, and interviewed dozens of experts inside and outside the agency, which administers Superfund.

Among the findings:

  • Cleanup work was started at about 145 sites in the past six years, while the startup rate was nearly three times as high for the previous six years.
  • During the last six years, an average of 42 sites a year reached what the EPA calls “construction complete,” compared with an average of 79 sites a year in the previous six years. Construction complete is reached when all the cleanup remedies have been installed at a site.
  • Lacking sufficient funding, EPA officials said they have had to delay needed work at some hazardous sites, use money left over from other cleanups — which itself is dwindling — and resort to cheap, less effective fixes.
  • While some companies say they have paid their fair share for cleanups, the amount of money Superfund is getting back from other companies in reimbursements for cleanups has steadily declined. The amount of money the agency recovered from those companies has fallen by half in the past six fiscal years, compared with the previous six years, 1995 through 2000. Recovered costs peaked in the fiscal years 1998 and 1999, at about $320 million each year. By fiscal 2004, collected cost recoveries had dropped well below the $100 million mark. In the last two fiscal years, 2005 and 2006, the EPA collected about $60 million each year.
  • The backlog of sites needing cleanup is growing while the money allocated to do the work is running out, according to former and current EPA officials familiar with Superfund.
  • Superfund officials keep details about the program secret, meeting behind closed doors to rank which sites are the most dangerous and in need of immediate attention. The ranking is “confidential” because the agency does not want polluters to know which sites are a priority and which ones aren’t. Some EPA insiders say the secrecy is intended to avoid provoking the public into demanding a solution from Congress.

“Obviously all these problems stem from a lack of funding, and it is disturbing that EPA is keeping this a secret rather than going to Congress and trying to get more money,” said Alex Fidis, an attorney who deals with Superfund issues for U.S. PIRG, a public-interest advocacy group.

Superfund sites are areas contaminated with hazardous material and left by corporate or government entities whose operations may have moved. They can be old landfills, abandoned mines or defunct military complexes.

In some cases, one company is responsible for the pollution at a site; others, like landfills, can have hundreds of “potentially responsible parties” (PRPs), making a coordinated cleanup effort difficult. A single site can take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up.

By the EPA’s accounting, Superfund has cleaned up only 319 sites to the point where they can be deleted from the list. Another 1,243 are active and an additional 61 are proposed, which brings the total number of sites ever involved in the Superfund program to 1,623.

Pollution continues

Sites where contamination has been blamed for deaths, caused cancer or poisoned children have existed for decades.

In Libby, Mont., where a plume of asbestos from a nearby vermiculite mine has enveloped the town, more than 200 people have died from asbestos-related diseases, according to EPA estimates. Cleanup at the site began in 2000.

In Smelterville, Idaho, where the nation’s worst childhood lead-poisoning epidemic occurred, due, in part, to a 1973 fire at a nearby lead smelter, experts warn that some homes still may have high levels of lead without the owners’ knowledge because the homes have not been sampled. Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially dangerous for young children, affecting their mental and physical growth.

Along the Hudson River in upstate New York, where more than a million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were dumped by General Electric Co., the New York Department of Health has linked high PCB blood levels to consumption of fish caught in the river. PCBs are considered a probable carcinogen by the EPA and the World Health Organization.

Contamination at these sites has been well documented for decades, and each of the sites has been on the National Priorities List — a compilation of the toxic waste sites the EPA considers to be the most dangerous — for at least five years. Cleanup has not been completed at any of them.

For the past 11 years, the EPA has convened a panel of representatives from each of its 10 regions twice a year to decide which sites deserve immediate financial attention. The rankings are based on the site’s risk to the surrounding community, the environment and, to an extent, public concern, according to the agency.

But the meetings of the National Risk-Based Priority Panel are closed, and the list of sites that comes out of these sessions is an “enforcement confidential” document, meaning it is off-limits to the public.

Besides the head of the Superfund program and the members of the panel who rank the sites, no one knows which ones are on track to receive funding and get cleaned up, which are not, and why, the Center study found.

Susan Bodine, the top-ranking Superfund official, told the Center that the list is kept confidential to prevent polluters from taking advantage of the EPA’s funding decisions; agency insiders, however, say the EPA wants to leave the public in the dark because the agency does not want citizens to turn to Congress for help.

In a statement to the Center, the EPA defended its record, stating that more than 1,000 of the current Superfund sites are “construction complete.” The EPA defines this stage as all physical cleanup systems are in place, all immediate threats are eliminated and all long-term threats are under control.

The construction complete phase can take years to reach complete cleanup and deletion from the Superfund list and can involve years of EPA monitoring, reviews and evaluations.

The statement said, however, that “the term ‘construction complete’ does not indicate that all cleanup goals at a given site have been met. Some sites that achieve ‘construction complete’ status are determined to be safe for particular uses, others are not.”

But the number of construction completions has also been declining: there have been half as many over the past six years, compared with 1995 through 2000. EPA data show exactly 40 construction completions for each of the past four fiscal years.

And, according to recent EPA data, at nearly 40 of these sites considered “construction complete,” human exposure to dangerous substances or migration of contaminated groundwater off the site are not under control.

Love Canal legacy

The Superfund program was launched in 1980 in the wake of a national tragedy that unfolded at Love Canal, N.Y. Lois Gibbs, a housewife-turned-activist who would come to be known as the “Mother of Superfund,” discovered that her family’s and neighbors’ sickness could be traced to toxic waste buried underneath her hometown decades earlier by Occidental Petroleum Co.

Initially, the program was funded by a tax on polluters, which fed the actual “Superfund,” a pool of money used to pay for the cleanup of sites whose polluters were unknown or unable to do the work. But the tax law expired in 1995, under a Republican-controlled Congress, and the $3.8 billion that had accumulated in the fund at its peak ran dry in 2003.

The program is now funded with taxpayer dollars and money that the EPA manages to recover from polluters for work the agency has done at their sites.

But Superfund’s budget has not kept up with inflation. In 1995, the program received $1.43 billion in appropriations; 12 years later, it received $1.25 billion. In inflation-adjusted dollars, funding has declined by 35 percent.

Elliott Laws, an environmental lawyer who was Bill Clinton’s Superfund chief, sees that as a problem. “What you’ve got isn’t buying as much as it once could,” he said.

Financial constraints are so severe that much of the program’s cleanup money is being spent on 10 to 12 large projects, according to the EPA. With less money, the EPA has also started looking at the cheapest remedies when it’s paying the bill, critics say.

At an abandoned creosote factory in Pensacola, Fla., for example, plans are underway to place a giant tarp and layers of clay and soil over a nearly 600,000-cubic-yard mound of chemical waste — a measure that many observers consider inadequate and inefficient, largely because the community’s groundwater could become contaminated.

“I think funding is a very important part of what is happening at this site and all orphan sites,” said Frances Dunham, an environmental activist with a grassroots nonprofit organization called Citizens Against Toxic Exposure. The EPA’s public report on PRPs shows nearly 400 “orphan sites,” meaning the agency hasn’t found any viable parties it could force to pay for cleanup costs at those sites.

Over the past several years, funding constraints have forced sites ranked by the National Risk-Based Priority Panel to compete for money left over from cleanups completed in previous years. These “deobligated funds” make up a significant amount of the money used to clean up sites that are ready to receive funding.

According to Bill Murray, who has served on the EPA’s risk panel for eight years, agency staffers have been told in recent years “to get into those cupboards and scrape together those crumbs” — referring to the deobligated funds.

Now, even those crumbs are running out.

“This year is going to be a tough year in terms of harvesting more deobligations, and I expect next year will be, too,” Murray said.

“It is like having four sick kids at a table, and you only have one aspirin,” said Love Canal’s Gibbs. “You can’t decide which one to give it to even though they all need assistance, and, like a Superfund site, those illnesses are going to get worse and those medical costs are going to get higher the longer it takes you to address the problem.”

Another panel member, John Frisco, said cleanups at numerous sites have been stretched out over longer periods of time because there isn’t enough money to get them done quickly and still pay for other ongoing cleanups.

“Those kinds of budget evaluations are something you never would have heard of 10 years ago but are now quite common,” Frisco said.

As a result of the funding shortages, the EPA’s cleanup plans for some sites are being more closely scrutinized, and sometimes delayed on purpose, according to Bradley Campbell, former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

“There were particular cases where I was shown internal EPA correspondence where EPA staff was directed to find faults in the cleanup plan, because funding wasn’t there for a cleanup otherwise ready to begin,” Campbell said.

According to Fidis, the U.S. PIRG attorney, that poses a major problem to the public. “When you have a situation where site cleanups are being postponed, delayed or not investigated in a timely manner due to financial constraints, then you leave a threat to surrounding residents,” he said. “There could be an increased likelihood of groundwater contamination or potential for humans to come into contact with contaminated soil.”

Superfund chief Bodine, who is assistant EPA administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, acknowledged in an interview that deobligated funds have decreased in recent years.

She also told the Center in an interview that the EPA does not share the panel’s list of prioritized sites with the public because the agency does not want polluters to know which sites it will be focusing on.

“Letting people know where we are planning to spend money is information we don’t want responsible parties to have,” Bodine said. “That is information they could use and take into account as they are negotiating settlements with us.”

But some say that argument doesn’t make sense. One reason these sites are ranked for Superfund attention in the first place is that the EPA has not identified a polluter capable of paying for the cleanup, say members of the panel.

“I think, in general, sites that go to the panel for ranking are submitted to the panel because there is not a viable alternative to [Superfund] funding,” Frisco said. “And generally, that is because the site is truly abandoned.”

Bodine said that the secrecy is necessary anyway, because a polluter with the ability to pay could be linked to a site after the EPA has already begun the cleanup.

That’s unlikely for sites ranked by the panel, say those who have worked with the program. “In my experience, it’s never happened,” said former EPA deputy regional administrator Tom Voltaggio, who worked at the agency for more than 25 years.

Gibbs said she is troubled by this process. “The public thinks that these decisions are made based on data and threats to public health. They don’t think people are sitting around a table trying to determine which site gets the scraps,” she said.

One EPA official who is familiar with the panel said that some information is available to the public — buried on the EPA Web site — about the panel’s site rankings, where the EPA annually reveals how many sites will receive “new construction funding” and how many will not. New construction funding goes to sites where cleanup is ready to begin as soon as money is secured.

Superfund shortfall

The EPA inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and Congress have all issued reports pointing out Superfund’s funding shortfalls, and program experts have been recommending budget increases in light of the number of sites in the pipeline that will soon be ready to be funded.

But EPA officials have not requested more money. In fact, they have done the opposite.

As a staff member of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment in 1999, seven years before her appointment to head Superfund, Bodine helped author a bill that called for a $300 million reduction in the program’s budget. The bill did not make it to the House floor.

During her confirmation hearings for the EPA post, Bodine assured the Senate that she would be a “fierce advocate for Superfund funding.”

A month after her confirmation in March 2006, Bodine supported a Bush administration call for a $7 million decrease, from $588.9 million to $581.5 million, in the EPA’s remedial budget, which pays for site cleanups.

President Bush’s latest EPA budget request for 2008 again sought to reduce Superfund’s budget by $7 million.

In an interview with the Center, Bodine expressed confidence that the amount of money the program has been allocated is sufficient to get the job done.

Fewer Superfund sites listed

Overall, the number of Superfund sites listed per year has declined substantially in recent years, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, depending on who is asked.

From 1995 to 2000, an average of 25 sites were added each year to the Superfund’s National Priorities List. From 2001 to 2006, an average of 17 sites were added per year.

According to Superfund’s Bodine, the numbers are shrinking because “the smaller sites are being addressed through the state voluntary cleanup programs so that there are fewer sites being brought forward to the EPA.”

But Rena Steinzor, an environmental law professor at the University of Maryland, who co-wrote the 1986 amendments to the Superfund law as a congressional staffer, speculates that the EPA is trying to kill the program “by reducing the perception that it is needed.”

Resources for the Future, a Washington-based environmental think tank, proposes this explanation: It’s all about declining funding. In a 2001 book written for Congress on the subject, it says EPA managers have been cautious about listing larger, more expensive toxic waste sites to avoid “breaking the bank. … Sites that need cleanup are not being addressed because of funding concerns.” The group’s book recommends a budget increase, which never came.

Local activists, meanwhile, continue to wait for help that they fear may never come. Gibbs said that many communities have developed a deep distrust of the program.

“They know if they get listed, it’s a 10- or 20-year process to get a site cleaned up,” said Gibbs, who no longer lives in Love Canal and now heads the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit organization that assists communities struggling with hazardous waste issues.

She said she thought that Superfund was the “perfect solution,” but that the program is no longer what it used to be. “It doesn’t represent the positive image for communities that it once did,” she said.

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