Superfund: Hazardous Waste?

By Michael Fumento

Investor’s Business Daily, October 22, 1991
Copyright 1991 by Investor’s Business Daily

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On Oct. 2, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly admitted there was a real problem with the agency’s program for cleaning up hazardous waste sites, Superfund.

The problem, he said, stemmed mostly from the EPA’s faulty management of contractors.

But some critics of the decade-old program, whose cost may eventually exceed that of the savings and loan bailout, charge that Superfund is riddled with problems.

They point out that little progress has been made in cleaning up designated waste sites. Costs have ballooned — and may continue soaring to levels considered awesome even by government standards.

Superfund costs keep ballooning.

The original idea was to spend $1.6 billion and take five years to tackle 400 emergency sites.

But 11 years later, Congress has appropriated more than $10 billion for Superfund activities, of which virtually all has been spent or obligated. Companies found liable for disposing of hazardous waste at these sites have spent another $4 billion, according to the EPA, though others put that figure much higher.

The number of sites on the EPA cleanup list has also swollen, to more than 1,200. Yet, according to the EPA, only 63 of those sites have been cleaned up, and the list continues to grow.

In fact, there’s no end to the number of places that may be designated as Superfund sites. The EPA has a list of no fewer than 32,000 potential sites in its computer bank. And in a December 1987 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the agency estimated the actual number of potential hazardous waste sites could range from 135,000 to 425,000.

Thus far, cleanup costs have averaged more than $25 million per site.

In 1989, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment said that the final figure could be as high as $500 billion, taking into account both government and industry expenditures, and that the process could last for six decades. Then, earlier this year, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) project director on Superfund, Joel Hirschhorn, now a consultant with Washington. D.C., environmental consulting firm Hirschhorn & Associates, concluded that costs could reach $1 trillion.

By contrast, the current government estimate for the total cost of the thrift bailout, according to the Resolution Trust Corp., will be a mere $90 billion to $130 billion, including interest.

The place it all started, Love Canal.

Superfund was created in the wake of the events at the community near Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Residents who had been exposed to the chemical dioxin complained of a variety of ills and demanded to be evacuated.

They finally convinced the state and national governments to move them out and pay for their homes and land at an eventual cost of more than $55 million.

Following this highly publicized incident, Congress, by an overwhelming majority, passed 1980’s Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which created Superfund. It authorized taxes drawn from sales of chemicals and petroleum-based products and allowed the EPA to sue anyone who has put hazardous waste into a dump site to either clean the site up or pay for the cleanup.

Ironically, there has never been any evidence of health problems resulting from the leakage at Love Canal beyond the anecdotal evidence provided by residents.

The New York State Department of Health continues to monitor former residents of the area, but it has yet to find any excess of cancer or other illnesses in these people.

Yet to this day, the American public believes that Love Canal was a terrible health hazard and that there are "thousands" of Love Canals around the country, as the late Superfund supporter Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., said.

EPA Detractors

EPA detractors are just as forceful in their views. "There is not a single recorded incidence of death or even sickness from any hazardous waste site in the entire country," asserted Fred Smith, a former EPA official who now works for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a small Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

EPA officials do not dispute the lack of a direct connection to deaths near dump sites. The EPA relies on animal testing of chemicals — typically delivered in doses that are hundreds of thousands of times beyond what a human might encounter.

From there, the EPA decides whether a substance might cause cancer in humans at a level as low as a single molecule.

The dioxin molecule, up close and personal.

For example, dioxin, one of the Love Canal contaminants, has generally been considered the most powerful carcinogens created by man in that it causes extremely high rates of cancer in guinea pigs when they are fed large doses.

Increasingly, however, scientists are questioning the high-dose animal model. They note there is often a tremendous difference in how certain chemicals affect closely related animals, such as rats and mice, and they say this calls into question the even-greater leap from a rat or a mouse to a human.

Further, there is increasing evidence that the results of giving extremely large amounts of a chemical to a few animals cannot be extrapolated to suggest what the ingestion of comparatively small amounts by humans might cause.

Bruce Ames

Dr. Bruce Ames, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said: "Half of the chemicals tested, including the natural ones, are coming out positive in the animal tests. The amounts of pesticides and other contaminants that we’re getting in our water tables are so small compared to what we’re getting in plants that they’re not significant."

Lack Of Evidence

In the case of dioxin, massive human exposure as the result of accidents has resulted in no convincing evidence of long-term harm whatsoever, according to Michael Gough, author of Dioxin, Agent Orange, and currently a program manager at the Office of Technology Assessment. What’s more, the EPA is re-evaluating its position on the chemical.

A few months ago, officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control admitted that the EPA’s buyout and evacuation of Times Beach, Mo., which had been contaminated with dioxin, was probably ill-advised.

Nonetheless, the EPA, having already paid $31 million to buy what is now a ghost town, is proceeding to spend another $29 million to clean it up.

Said Kent Jeffreys of the Competitive Enterprise Institute: "We believe that no one’s health is being benefitted by Superfund. In 99 of 100 cases, we are supposedly talking about human health concerns, but the (Superfund) law is written so that it essentially calls for returning the environment to a pristine condition."

"The vast majority of hazardous chemicals (at Superfund sites) are not proven causes of illness in humans," noted another critic, Jerry Taylor of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

This does not, however, stop people from assuming that any illness they contract near a waste site is necessarily related to that proximity.

Just as it was once generally acknowledged that the moon caused mental illness, it is now widely believed that mere proximity to a hazardous waste site is unhealthful.

’Donahue’ Guest

As a guest on the daytime talk show Donahue put it, "I live near Starret City and I never had sinus, and now since I moved there, because they got the dump, I got sinus."

The EPA, it seems, is by no means convinced that hazardous waste sites are a major health menace. In fact, while scare stories have prompted the public to rate hazardous waste sites as their No. 1 concern (according to an EPA poll), such sites aren’t even on the EPA’s list of top health risks — which includes such things as toxic air pollutants, indoor air pollution, occupational exposure to chemicals and application of pesticides.

Nevertheless, Superfund is the EPA’s biggest program in terms of expenditures, and it pulls no punches in implementing its mandate.

Under the EPA’s definition of contamination, one carelessly dumped gallon of degreaser, turpentine or motor oil can de-foul one billion gallons of groundwater.

Because these chemicals cause cancer in rodents when given in massive doses, that billion gallons of groundwater is considered contaminated and eligible for cleanup under Superfund.

Rocky Flats plutonium processing plant near Denver.  
At the Superfund site at the Rocky Flats plutonium processing plant in Golden, Colo., just outside Denver, about $8 million a gallon will be spent to remove six gallons of degreaser from groundwater.

By contrast, drinking water directly out of nearby Clear Creek can cause violent illness, as a result of parasites from animal feces dropped upstream. But since animals are dropping the waste and not companies, the government ignores them.

While the term hazardous waste may bring to mind powerful industrial agents and radioactive material, in fact tens of thousands of chemicals, many of them in household products, are classified as waste by the EPA.

Drain cleaner, roach spray and ammonia are examples. Said Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, "if you dump dirt on a house, it can classify as a potential Superfund site."

Financial Hardship

Such loose standards for Superfund classification can result in the imposition of tremendous financial hardship — not just on companies forced to clean up hazardous waste sites but also on those who may want to use the surrounding areas.

Following the recent congressionally mandated military base closings, many communities saw as the silver lining in the dark cloud their opportunity to convert bases into commercial areas. But a large number of these bases, including some of the biggest, have been placed on the Superfund priority list, making them off-limits to civilian use — for perhaps decades.

Efforts to eliminate "the last molecule" of a suspected carcinogen inevitably prove extremely expensive.

For example, according to EPA figures, in Holden, Minn., $71,000 would be enough to seal off an abandoned factory containing toxic chemical residues, including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Another $3.6 million would clean up virtually all residues and bury remaining traces under a clay cap.

But the EPA, acting in compliance with its interpretation of federal and state law, will spend $13.6 million to $41.5 million to make the site immaculate.

The basis for this action is the EPA’s calculation that there is one chance in 10,000 that someone would develop cancer from eating the cattle that grazed near the property’s perimeter, based on the one molecule theory.

PCBs, like dioxin, are being re-evaluated in terms of the likelihood they’ll cause cancer in humans.

’Spending Vast Sums’

"I suspect the PCB story will be close to the dioxin story," said Dr. Vernon Houk, director of the Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control of the Centers for Disease Control. "But we don’t know that yet."

Leo Levenson, a former project manager for Superfund, left the program in 1988 after concluding it was well-intentioned but poorly carried out.

"We were spending vast sums of money on contamination that was unlikely to pose any sort of harm in the future for people or animals," he said.

While he commends the program’s emergency response activities, which allow it to quickly respond to spills and fires involving hazardous waste, Levenson is extremely critical of the EPA cleanup standards concerning carcinogens.

"In most cases," he said, "there were chemicals that needed to be cleaned up. But because standards are such that we must clean up to such tiny amounts, parts per billion, tremendous waste is incurred."

Even reducing remaining pollutants to tiny amounts, he said, "wouldn’t be such a problem if we would only clean to those standards at well sites."

Is it smart to clean up every last drop?  
This, Levenson says, combined with regular monitoring and deed restrictions, would completely protect human health.

By contrast, he said, "We were to make sure that (water) was cleaned to drinkable standards even if there was little possibility that it would ever be used as such. I think there’s an aesthetic around pure groundwater. But water while underground is not touched by anybody or any animal. It’s a very expensive aesthetic wanting to clean that water up."

Levenson notes that in a 1990 report on a program similar to Superfund, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Corrective Action Program, the EPA reported that a more flexible system could lower cleanup costs from $60 billion to $10 billion.

Cleaning up to parts per billion is also tremendously time-consuming, regardless of how closely and carefully the EPA monitors the contractors.

Said Levenson: "The program is bogged down chasing vanishing residuals of chemicals so that each site in the system takes forever to clean up. If we could address the hot spots and move on, we would be able to clean up the worst contamination at many of the sites much more quickly as well as cheaply."

This, he emphasizes, would provide more protection to the public than the present system.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on the EPA, on the the environment, and on cancer.