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Speeding up cleanup of hazardous waste dump sites

AT a hazardous waste site in Texas, investigators combed through 20-year-old business records and interviewed local truck drivers to pinpoint the sources of the abandoned material. In North Carolina, a warehouse stuffed with dangerous polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was decontaminated in a matter of months - something of a record in an era when such cleanups can dribble on for years.

Both cases were handled by Clean Sites Inc., an innovative nonprofit corporation that mediates the cleanup of hazardous waste sites.

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Formed in 1984, Clean Sites smooths the way for cleanup agreements between those responsible for dump sites and the government officials who enforce environmental regulations. The group performs an array of functions, from setting up meetings between generators of waste to divvying up cleanup costs.

``It's obvious that government alone can't do the job,'' says Charles Powers, president of the organization. ``We provide the missing bridge between the public and the private sectors.'' This missing link is one reason many dumps remain untouched seven years after a major federal cleanup law was enacted.

Since the so-called Superfund law was first passed in 1980, only 13 sites have been entirely cleaned and removed from the list of the nation's 951 most dangerous hazardous waste sites. Cleanup operations are underway at 131 of these. The estimated cost of a federal cleanup of one site is between $10 million and $20 million.

Under federal law, there are two possible approaches to dealing with a dump. The government can either clean up the site and then sue those responsible, or let the individuals get together and clean it up themselves.

But there's little incentive for waste generators to come forward and cut a deal. ``These parties are natural adversaries,'' says Joan Ebzery, Clean Site's director of public accountability. ``If one party pays less, someone else will pay more.''

The Environmental Protection Agency usually requires anyone agreeing to voluntarily clean a site to take responsibility for the whole job. So a waste generator who doesn't go along with the arrangement can get away without paying a dime.

There's also the confusion factor. Many sites are old waste-treatment or recycling facilities, which took materials from dozens or even hundreds of sources, including hospitals and schools. Those who generated the waste often assumed the stuff was being disposed of properly; some even have ``certificates'' that say so.

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But under Superfund, every originator of waste can be held liable, regardless of the circumstances. The result is protracted legal disputes. Parties bicker over what portion of the waste they're responsible for, how the costs should be divided, and even which technique should be used to clean the site.

``We started our work by asking why the existing system wasn't working,'' says Mr. Powers. What was missing, he says, was an honest broker all sides could trust.

So far, Clean Sites has been in involved in some capacity at 50 sites in 20 states. The work often includes compiling thousands of pieces of information about waste shipments, calculating cleanup costs, and helping parties come to an understanding acceptable to the government.

J.Winston Porter, the EPA assistant administrator who oversees Superfund, says, ``Clean Sites is a good example of the kind of third party involvement that can really facilitate tough negotiations, move us forward, and get real environmental progress in a shorter time frame.'' EPA has developed guidelines for groups such as Clean Sites.

But getting started wasn't easy.

Many environmentalists initially suspected that the group was a public relations ploy by the chemical industry. Original backing for the organization came from the nation's leading association of chemical companies. Clean Sites has since gotten money from several private foundations, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. And in the next year, the group will begin recovering part of its operating costs from those it helps.

Clean Sites also may have created unrealistic expectations. In 1984, the group predicted that it would be dealing with 60 sites a year by now. In fact, it deals with only a fraction of that number. And sometimes the group plays a very limited role, such as organizing waste generators in the initial phase of negotiations.

Powers says that Clean Sites focuses its energy on developing ``solution models'' - arrangements that can be duplicated in many locations without the help of the organization.

``We go out and test the ideas that EPA is thinking about,'' says Powers. For example, the group has developed a ``mixed funding'' approach that allows some of the companies responsible for a waste site to get together on a cleanup and then recover part of the cost from the government. The recovered funds are equal to what those who refused to cooperate should have spent.

This allows the government to focus its lawsuits on a smaller group of companies that are unwilling to take part in voluntary cleanups. It also creates an incentive for these companies to join in the original settlement.

Another innovation pioneered by Clean Sites is to combine clusters of sites, rather than dealing with each location individually.

And the group continues to identify new challenges. For example, many of today's operating municipal landfills have received some hazardous wastes and may eventually be categorized as hazardous waste sites. Clean Sites is working on ways to allocate cleanup costs at several such locations.

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