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New York Struggles With Superfund Problems

Buffalo News

WASHINGTON - Environmentalists increasingly say that Superfund, the federal program aimed at cleaning up the nation's worst toxic waste dumps, isn't exactly super these days.

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.

Bush administration 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.

Superfund has 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.

Complicating 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.

"There seems 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.


Effect on local sites

Notoriously 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 65.

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 Falls.

Other Western 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.

"There's definitely 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.


Trust fund depleted

"We 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 dwindling.

The chemical 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.

Democrats and 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.

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