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It wasn't supposed to be like this. In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act--commonly known as the Superfund law--one of the boldest environmental statutes in U.S. history. It was a law designed to fit all circumstances. It covered existing plants whose owners could be forced to clean up their dumps. It covered polluted sites long since abandoned by their owners: defunct factories, refineries and mines. Even when companies followed the standard, if dubious, practices of the day--dumping toxic waste in rivers, burying it in leaky drums or just leaving it, as in Oklahoma, to blow in the wind--they would be held accountable. And if they refused to clean up their messes, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would do so for them and charge treble damages for its trouble. In the event that the perpetrators had disappeared or gone out of business, a general tax on polluting industries--a "Superfund"--would pay to fix the damage.
But today Superfund is a program under siege, plagued by partisan politics, industry stonewalling and bureaucratic inertia. The U.S. government has spent $27 billion on the effort and forced individual polluters to spend an additional $21 billion. Love Canal, the deadly dump in New York State that spurred the law's passage, has been capped with a layer of clay, and the EPA proposed last month to take it off the list. So far, 278 sites have been delisted. But there are thousands more out there. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), 1 out of 4 Americans still lives within four miles of a Superfund site--many of them killing fields saturated with cancer-causing chemicals and other toxins.
The GAO reports that the program's budget fell 35% in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past decade. And environmentalists say that Bush appointees are slowing the pace of cleanups and failing to list potential new sites. According to the EPA's inspector general, 29 projects in 17 states were underfunded last year. The Administration, charges New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, has "allowed--deliberately--these sites to rot where they are."
Tar Creek is a case in point. Two decades after it was targeted on the very first Superfund priority list, the 40-sq.-mi. site is worse off than ever. Early on, the government confined its effort to the polluted creek, without looking at chat piles, soil, air quality or the danger of subsidence. Was it a lack of knowledge of the danger, as EPA claims? Or industry influence, as environmentalists charge? Whatever the reason, federal attorneys settled with mining companies for pennies on the dollar. Now, after fruitless efforts to contain 28 billion gal. of acid mine water, contamination is spreading across a vast watershed. And although the EPA trucked out toxic dirt from about 2,000 homes and schools, Tar Creek's children still show elevated lead levels at six times the national average.