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Squandered Superfund

DURING the election campaign, both presidential candidates blithely promised to make polluters pay for toxic waste cleanups. But rhetoric has met reality in communities like Elizabeth, N.J. When thousands of drums of hazardous wastes burned out of control for more than 10 hours at Elizabeth's Chemical Control Corporation one April night in 1980, the abandoned facility joined Love Canal and Times Beach as symbols of America's toxic waste disposal crisis. Two years ago the United States Congress provided the Environmental Protection Agency with an unprecedented arsenal of resources to do just what our next president has promised for Chemical Control and nearly 1,200 other priority hazardous waste sites that threaten the nation's health. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 gave the EPA legal authority to force polluters to clean the hazardous waste sites they have created.

If polluters refuse to act, EPA may draw upon a $9 billion trust fund to finance the cleanup and sue the responsible parties to recoup the cost to the government. The statute also contains tough national cleanup standards and expands the role of local residents in selecting long-term cleanup remedies for the community.

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The experience of Chemical Control, however, drives home the continuing controversy over whether EPA is using the law effectively. The former hazardous waste treatment facility is counted by EPA as one of 75 successful cleanup decisions completed on schedule during the last fiscal year. The decision appears to bolster EPA's impressive claim that 70 percent of the cleanups it has approved will attack the source of contamination.

Ironically, the Chemical Control decision was singled out for criticism in the two most comprehensive studies of EPA's performance since Congress revitalized the Superfund program. Both reports, one by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the other by six national environmental groups and an association of waste treatment firms, ranked Chemical Control among the worst cleanup decisions approved by EPA last year.

EPA has endorsed scores of unacceptable hazardous waste cleanups across the country. In Ohio, the agency will use ``visible contamination levels'' as the cleanup standard for soil saturated with colorless, odorless carcinogens. A Louisiana bayou subject to flooding, from upswells of ground water below hazardous waste ponds, will receive a clay cap. Ground water at a New York site containing a known chemical carcinogen will be left 30 times as contaminated as ground water at a site in Michigan poisoned by the same chemical.

EPA officials have been repeatedly called before Congress to defend the Reagan administration against charges of systematically violating the Superfund law:

Over 90 percent of the cleanup decisions EPA approved in fiscal year 1987 failed to use permanent treatment on sources of contamination to the maximum extent practicable, as required by law.

Disposal of the untreated waste at many Superfund sites failed to comply with EPA's own regulation and objective public health standards such as those of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Polluters wield extraordinary influence over the selection of remedies, while public participation has been stifled by EPA's failure to issue the technical assistance grants authorized by Congress.

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Most of the hazardous waste sites currently undergoing Superfund cleanups will remain lethal monuments to an age of environmental indifference. The Bush administration will inherit a Superfund program in chaos.

Two years ago Congress wrote a law that guarantees the nation permanent hazardous waste cleanups that protect public health. George Bush, as the next president, must begin to enforce it.

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