JACKSONVILLE, Ark. -- When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began its Superfund program on Dec. 11, 1980, amid a growing national fear of chemical hazards, it promised to protect public health and the environment from toxic waste.
Now the $15.2 billion program is 10 years old, and it has completely cleaned up only 63 toxic sites. There are 1,187 more names on its "national priorities" list of cleanup sites, and final cost estimates range from $32 billion to $80 billion.
Its critics say the Superfund program is bogged down in a bureaucratic swamp.
Residents of tainted communities fear that their homes may never be safe. In some cases, they are still waiting for the EPA to do what it promised. In others, they fear that the cleanup work itself is creating new dangers.
Health care workers and environmental activists are especially concerned that incineration, the waste-disposal system the EPA favors, is unsafe.
Hugh Kaufman, the EPA's assistant to the director of hazardous-site control, says, "The idea for Superfund was never to be a public works project to clean up these sites." It was intended that polluters clean up their mess, he said, but instead, Superfund has become "super welfare for the consulting engineers and waste-disposal companies."
Even EPA Director William K. Reilly acknowledges that "there have been far more people in three-piece suits" negotiating the cleanups than people actually doing the cleanup.
Some of the most notorious sites are still on the Superfund list after years of work, including Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Times Beach, Mo.; and the Valley of the Drums, near Louisville, Ky. The EPA allowed a dozen families to return to Love Canal last summer after 1,600 families had been evacuated and the contaminated residential area had been studied and cleaned at a cost of $250 million. Times Beach is still a toxic ghost town.
One of the more controversial issues is the agency's advocacy of incineration to destroy toxic waste. Reilly acknowledges that the agency has failed to develop alternative technologies.