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Waukegan Harbor PCBs: job for 'superfund'

Illinois is providing one measure of how effective pending "superfund" legislation could be in cleaning up toxic chemical wastes. If the Senate and House hammer out a compromise superfund bill before the congressional session ends Dec. 5, it is likely to provide a $1.6 billion federal fund, 87.5 percent financed by taxes on the chemical industry, to pay for cleaning up chemical dumps and spills.

Along with New York's Love Canal area, one of the first targets for superfund money would be Waukegan Harbor, 35 miles north of Chicago. This pleasant spot shows no visible signs of pollution.But Waukegan Harbor's clear waters now cover the highest identified concentration of toxic PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) wastes in the United States.

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Latest US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies show PCB concentrations of up to 200,000 parts per million (ppm) in the worst areas. Other large sections of the harbor contain sediments considered "highly polluted ," with concentrations of 10 ppm.

This week in Chicago the US EPA announced a $2.5 million plan to clean up the worst pollution by dredging a portion of the harbor and isolating the polluted sediment. Total cleanup costs are put at $25 million.

The Lake Michigan Federation, a public interest group which helped secure an emergency congressional appropriation of $1.5 million for Waukegan cleanup work, has welcomed the EPA plan. But the federation's assistant director, Larry Kamer , feels that years of EPA delays ended only when Congress's decisive intervention "made Waukegan Harbor cleanup a matter of national priority." Mary McInnis, legislative assistant to Rep. Robert McClory (R) of Illinois, who sponsored the $1.5 million appropriation, says, "We decided to use the vehicle of congressional appropriation to get cleanup operations at least started."

Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), taken to court by the EPA on charges of polluting Waukegan Harbor, also insists that the EPA has been very slow in responding to the PCB problem. OMC associate general counsel Hugh Thomas maintains that EPA officials "were aware of PCBs in Waukegan Harbor as early as 1972, but they did not take any action in any form until February of 1976."

Following EPA complaints in 1976, OMC found that "some PCBs had been used and possibly did escape" before their use was discontinued in 1971. Current EPA estimates are that some 1 million pounds of PCBs were discharged by OMC's Johnson outboard motor plant into Waukegan Harbor and Lake Michigan.

Thomas explains that OMC worked closely with the EPA and spent $1.4 million on studies of the problem and on replacement of pipes and pumps contaminated with PCBs. The next step came in March 1978, when the EPA went to court to force OMC to pay for cleanup work. That suit and countersuits charging that the EPA should pay for any cleanup are still pending -- and could drag on for another five years or more according to EPA officials.

EPA regional administrator John McGuire is confident that the new superfund legislation will provide a way to prevent the delays involved in court action. Under the proposed legislation, EPA could draw on superfund money for emergency cleanup action, after which the EPA would sue to recover costs from companies responsible for discharging chemicals into the environment.

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Yet doubts remain here. Waukegan residents worry that forcing OMC to pay for the cleanup could close down the town's major employer. Clearly OMC, with net earnings last year of $2.4 million, would find it hard to pay the estimated $25 million for a complete cleanup.

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