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Delayed toxic cleanup puts public at risk
Money is drying up; 15,000 polluted areas in Michigan need help
By Brad Heath
The Detroit News
Published August 9th, 2004

The bank accounts that pay for cleaning thousands of toxic dumps and cast-off factories across Michigan are nearly empty, raising fears that needed cleanups soon will be delayed, scaled back or scrapped altogether.

Most of that work is the responsibility of the federal Superfund and a patchwork of state cleanup programs. But Superfund money has dropped by a third over the past decade and its account is empty. Michigan’s programs are expected to be bankrupt within four years, even though more than 15,000 old landfills, leaking underground tanks and other polluted sites still need cleaning.

Without more money to finish the job, officials warn, the sites will remain a public health risk and a barrier to economic development.

Federal auditors already blame limited funding for delaying work at a handful of Superfund sites around the country. And this year, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration said scarce state cleanup money will keep Michigan from tackling any new cleanup projects. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Washington and Lansing are considering higher fees to keep the cleanups going.

“The bottom line is things aren’t getting done,” said James Clift, legislative director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “At some point, cleanups will just grind to a halt.”

That’s the last thing Murray Borrello wants to see happen. But he’s worried that Superfund cuts will keep the government from thoroughly removing the DDT and other toxins in the soil at the Velsicol Chemical Corp. plant in St. Louis, Mich.

The plant is one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites, laced with cancer-causing chemicals and other waste that’s still seeping out. The state has banned eating any fish caught nearby.

“We’re afraid the government’s going to come and say we know how bad the problem is and how to clean it up, but here’s what we’re going to settle for because of the funding,” said Borrello, a college professor who lives in nearby Alma. “Money is always a factor.”

Officials already have tried sealing off the plant, only to find toxins still leaking. Now they’re spending a decade and as much as $100 million to dredge the contaminated Pine River. But Borrello and other neighbors worry that if the government can’t spend enough to properly clean the Velsicol Chemical Corp. dumping grounds, all that work will be wasted.

“It’s a serious situation,” he said. “The result is that some sites that need to get cleaned up won’t and some places that pose a risk aren’t even being identified.”

State officials don’t disagree. The state Department of Environmental Quality now says it only has enough money left to manage cleanup projects that have begun, and even that won’t last long.

“In a very short time frame, we’re going to run out of money,” said Robert Nowinski, the chief of administration in the DEQ division responsible for cleanup work.

Federal officials acknowledge Superfund — stretched by two decades of expanding cleanup demands — also doesn’t have enough money to go around. But that has more to do with a glut of expensive construction projects than its now-drained trust fund, said Thomas P. Dunne, the assistant U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator in charge of the Superfund.

“There’s no doubt we need more money,” Dunne said. “As far as we’re concerned, where the money comes from doesn’t make any difference.”

It’s unclear exactly how much of a danger those sites pose to people’s health or the environment. But studies have found continued health risks from toxins around dozens of Superfund sites. And experts fear many state sites are leaching toxins into the Great Lakes and other waterways.

Still, the financial pinch is getting tighter as costs rise and funding shrinks.

That situation is not likely to improve. Managers of the state and federal programs acknowledge they now must contend with more costly cleanup work than in the past. Costs go up because the earliest phases of a project — studying the problem and designing a way to fix it — are usually far less expensive than the dredging, digging or building involved in the actual cleanup.

And they’re still finding new sites in need of work.

Now environmentalists and some state and federal lawmakers are seeking to extend or even raise the fuel and industrial taxes that paid for the cleanups.

State must do most cleanups

Most cleanups in Michigan are the state’s responsibility. Only a handful of the biggest, most-contaminated projects have been turned over to Washington.

For years, Michigan has leaned heavily on borrowed money to pay for the work — most recently through the $675 million Clean Michigan Initiative bonds voters approved in 1998. But that money is nearly exhausted. After this year, officials estimate they’ll have only $35.7 million that’s not spoken for.

They’ll have nothing left by 2008.

“It’s a balancing act. We have less money but we have more work to do,” DEQ spokesman Robert McCann said. “Obviously, there are a lot of projects out there we’ve got to clean up, but we don’t have the money to do it.”

The state already is scaling back. Granholm’s budget proposal for next year bars funding for almost all new cleanup projects, unless one presents a public health emergency. Ongoing projects will still be paid for.

Officials say they’re still piecing together a complete list of the cleanups they won’t be able to start.

But experts say it’s a long one: A report last year by the Michigan Environmental Council found 1,600 old landfills, 9,000 leaking underground tanks and more than 5,000 other sites still in need of cleanups. Many are near residential neighborhoods in Metro Detroit and other parts of the state.

One of the worst, critics say, is a chemical dump in Riverview believed to be leaking mercury and other toxins into the Detroit River. The buried chemicals were unearthed in 1979, but still haven’t been removed. Hundreds of other sites are dotted across Metro Detroit.

The state’s cleanup bill will top $2.7 billion.

Superfund also running low

Experts say the Superfund’s financial pinch is almost as tight.

The program — the nation’s chief tool for cleaning up its worst toxic messes — was created in 1980 after the discovery of 20,000 tons of toxic waste prompted an evacuation around Love Canal in upstate New York. Today, it supervises — and often pays for — cleanups at more than 1,200 sites nationwide.

But the taxes on businesses, chemicals and crude oil that fed Superfund’s bank account were halted in 1995. That “trust fund” was depleted this year. And while Congress has found other ways to pay for much of the work, Superfund has still weathered an inflation-adjusted 35 percent funding drop since 1993, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm.

The EPA’s inspector general warned in January that the Superfund had $175 million less than it needed last year, forcing cleanups at 29 sites to be delayed or scaled back. That meant fewer homes were tested for lead around a smelter in Omaha, Neb. and planning was delayed for removing asbestos contamination from the soil near Libby, Mont.

Dunne said none of the delays has put people at risk.

“Frankly, we don’t have any sites sitting out there where there’s an imminent danger. What the (Inspector General) said is we don’t have enough money, and I don’t disagree with that,” he said. “We’re spending the money as prudently as we can, trying to spread it out so we can undertake as much as possible.”

Environmentalists disagree.

“If you have to make compromises about cleanups, we believe that’s not good for public health,” said Danielle Solomon, the Superfund policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

So far, auditors said none of the 67 Michigan sites on the Superfund cleanup list were affected. The list includes a Rochester Hills landfill contaminated by carcinogens and 10 other Metro Detroit sites.

Superfund taxes opposed

To keep that from happening, environmentalists and some lawmakers have urged Washington to reinstate the Superfund taxes.

But manufacturers and other industries that would pay most of the bill oppose such a plan, arguing it’s unfair to single them out.

“We’re all going to benefit from a cleaner environment,” said Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers. “Our position is that taxes to clean up the environment should come from everyone.”

And state lawmakers in Michigan are considering extending a 7/8-cent fee on gas and other petroleum products. The measure would give the DEQ an added $60 million a year to spend on environmental cleanups.

But regulators say that still isn’t enough to cover the state’s cleanup tab, and they’re still hunting for other ways to pay for it all.

“We have two choices,” said Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter. “We either walk away from these sites or we find a way to clean them up.”

You can reach Brad Heath at (313) 222-2563 or

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