New York Struggles With Superfund Problems
WASHINGTON - Environmentalists increasingly say that
Superfund, the federal program aimed at cleaning up the
nation's worst toxic waste dumps, isn't exactly super
For proof, they
can point to contaminated Hickory Woods. Residents of
that South Buffalo neighborhood have been clamoring for
a cleanup for years, but they haven't looked to Superfund
to do it.
"We thought that
getting on the (Superfund) list would set us back," said
Chuck Antolina, vice president of Hickory Woods Homeowners
for a Clean Environment. "There are just so many environmental
problems in the United States that to be placed on the
federal list would place us so far down on a list of priorities."
That's just one
of many signs of trouble in the Superfund program, which
the federal government created after the Niagara Falls
Love Canal disaster in 1980.
Though the pace
of cleanups increased dramatically during the Clinton
administration, it has slowed under President Bush. Meanwhile,
the industry-backed fund that pays for some cleanups is
nearly empty, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
"The most important
parts of the program - the pace of the cleanup and the
principle that the polluter must pay - are now under attack,"
said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate
subcommittee that oversees the program.
officials counter by saying that the slowdown is happening
naturally. Many of the easier Superfund sites got cleaned
up first, leaving the more difficult and time-consuming
ones yet to do, said Marianne Lamont Horinko, the Environmental
Protection Agency official who oversees the program.
been regarded as difficult and time-consuming since the
day it was created. The program calls for an individualized,
multistage approach to every hazardous waste site: It
involves finding the polluters, suing them, and considering
several cleanup alternatives before any dirt is dug up.
That's why Hickory
Woods activists never clamored for a Superfund cleanup.
Residents originally thought it would be quicker to leave
the work to LTV Steel Corp., which polluted the site before
the City of Buffalo built new homes there during the 1990s.
But LTV's bankruptcy
last year "threw everything into disarray" and delayed
any action, Antolina said.
matters further is that New York State's own Superfund
program - which is aimed at sites that don't qualify for
the more stringent federal program - is in limbo. Gov.
George E. Pataki and the State Legislature couldn't agree
on a plan to replenish the fund.
to be some kind of a mesh between the Republicans in Washington
and the state Republican administration," said Rick Ammerman,
president of the Hickory Woods homeowners group.
Both, he said,
tried to weaken their hazardous waste programs.
on local sites
inefficient throughout the 1980s, the federal Superfund
has averaged 86 completed cleanups per year during the
past four years. But the EPA announced recently that it
would complete only 40 sites this year, down from a projected
The agency didn't
release a list of cleanups that might be delayed, but
the U.S. Public Interest Research Group did. It said eight
Western New York sites were most likely to be affected,
including the Forest Glen Mobile Home Subdivision in Niagara
New York sites on that list include the Batavia Landfill,
Byron Barrel and Drum in the Town of Byron in Genesee
County, the Peter Cooper Corp. sites in Dayton and Gowanda,
the Little Valley site, the Lehigh Valley Railroad site
in Le Roy and the Sinclair Oil Refinery in Wellsville.
All the Western
New York cleanups are currently on schedule, said Mike
Basile, the EPA's local spokesman. And conversations with
local environmentalists revealed no concerns about delays
at any of those sites.
But the public
interest group said those sites and 248 others nationwide
were most likely to be delayed, given that they rely on
the nearly depleted Superfund trust fund for money.
a drop-off," said Lois M. Gibbs, the former Love Canal
activist who now heads the Center for Health, Environment
and Justice. "They're saying they're slowing down. It's
not a secret."
And to hear EPA
officials talk, it's not a diabolical plot, either. It's
just that the agency's current cleanups take longer to
complete than those of recent years.
would love to be able to clean up more sites," said Randy
Deitz, an attorney and EPA adviser. "There has been no
decision not to clean sites up. Nothing could be further
from the truth."
Deitz said the
slowdown has nothing to do with the depletion of the Superfund
Trust Fund, which has dwindled from $3 billion in 1995
to an estimated $28 million in 2003.
About 70 percent
of cleanups are paid for directly by the companies that
made the mess. And while the trust fund is supposed to
pay for the rest, Deitz said Congress has set aside enough
money to pay for them even while the trust fund has been
industry funded the trust fund through a special tax until
1995, when it expired. Clinton never could persuade Congress
to reauthorize the tax, and Bush hasn't even tried.
environmentalists see a big connection between that fact
and the lagging pace of the cleanups.
"They just reject
the polluter-pays principle," said Rep. John J. LaFalce,
the Town of Tonawanda Democrat who introduced the first
Superfund bill after the Love Canal debacle.