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Toxic releases decline, but worst soups persist

US base closings could add to cleanup tasks despite EPA report of pollution declines.

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The good news about toxic pollutants in the air, soil, and water is that overall levels are coming down. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency some of the most toxic substances - mercury, dioxin, lead, and PCBs - remain an increasing problem.

The recent announcement of another round of military base closures could put more focus on the problem of toxic waste and how to solve it.

The EPA notes significant pollution problems at some 100 military bases, and 34 already-shuttered bases are among the most toxic "Superfund" sites, according to an Associated Press survey. Problems persist with such hard-to-remove contaminants as cleaning solvents, asbestos, radioactive materials, unexploded ordnance, and lead paint. The Pentagon already has spent $8.3 billion cleaning up recently closed military sites, and the total bill could top $12 billion.

All of this makes it difficult for the Pentagon to convert such facilities to state or privately owned properties, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported recently. In most cases, it takes years, if not decades, to finish the cleanup. In some places, for example, poisonous chemicals have seeped into groundwater flowing off-base.

According to the GAO, which looked at the previous four rounds of base closures going back to 1988, 28 percent of the total acreage has yet to be transferred "due primarily to the need for environmental cleanup."

While new base closures announced last week will add to that problem, total amounts of toxic pollution in the US environment have edged down.

In its latest annual Toxics Release Inventory, which covers more than 23,000 facilities and about 650 chemicals, the EPA reports that 4.4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released in 2003 (the latest available figures), about 6 percent less than the previous year. Most of the decrease was in metal mining and chemical manufacturing. Since 1998, before which fewer chemicals and fewer facilities were reported, toxic releases have gone down 42 percent.

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