Toxic waste cleanup program lags behind goals After 18 years, 37% of 1,359 Superfund sites are cleaned up


MEBANE, N.C. — Eighteen years after the passage of sweeping legislation to clean up the worst of the nation's toxic waste dumps, much of the job remains undone. American companies will have to spend billions of dollars in coming years to decontaminate the most polluted Superfund sites. But that is not at all obvious from scouring the companies' annual financial reports and filings.

Many companies, including General Electric and Viacom, only hint at their obligations in their filings and annual reports, leaving the people who invest in their stocks, live near their properties and work in their factories in the dark about when they plan to make amends - and how much they expect to spend.

Now, a variety of environmentalists, labor advocates, scientists and insurance industry executives, all with different aims, want to see companies identify each site the government expects them to help fix and provide their best estimate of what each cleanup might cost. Without such basic information, these people say, they cannot tell whether companies are doing all they can or whether they are ignoring the problem. That, in turn, makes it easier for companies to shirk their obligations.

Indeed, only about 37 percent of the 1,359 official Superfund sites have been cleaned up after 18 years.

When asked, executives say they have nothing to hide. It's just that quantifying these costs is next to impossible and often irrelevant, they say.

Current securities laws and accounting rules require companies to report what they expect to spend on environmental problems. But many executives argue that pending litigation clouds the picture or that the amounts are just too trifling to spell out, given the company's size. And so far, auditors have not objected.

Mess in Palmerton, Pa.

In its annual financial report, for instance, Viacom, the entertainment giant, regales shareholders with news of its hit movie "Titanic." "Winner of 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture," it takes pains to note. But its yearly disclosure documents contain next to nothing about the mess in Palmerton, Pa., that federal regulators trace at least in part to Viacom's door.

There, smoke from a zinc smelter has scattered huge quantities of heavy metals throughout the rural town. The smelter was operated for decades by Paramount Communications, back when it was an industrial hodgepodge known as Gulf and Western. By the time Viacom bought Paramount in 1994, the smelter had long been sold. But under federal law, prior owners of Superfund sites can still be held responsible.

Toxic smoke from the smelter killed all plants and trees on a mountain overlooking Palmerton and the grass in residents' yards. Government tests have shown that children who live in Palmerton have higher than normal levels of lead in their blood. The metals have found their way into the horses and cattle that graze in the area and even into garden vegetables. Because the soil is sterile in places, fallen trees do not decompose but lie as stark reminders of the decades-long assault.

Toxic waste still burning

The smelting also left a swath of toxic waste 2.5 miles long that is still burning inside - a molten mess that government studies say could cost as much as $200 million to clean up.

But Viacom did not find Palmerton worth noting in its recent 100-page financial report. The only hint of the millions of dollars that Viacom may spend on it and 17 other polluted sites that regulators say the company is at least partly responsible for is a footnote that makes no mention of a Superfund problem per se.

The footnote states that the company has recorded a liability - it does not say how much - of its best estimate of its "environmental exposure" on a slew of unnamed matters. Through a spokesman, the company defended its accounting but refused to disclose more details, saying that the numbers were not significant to its financial performance.

As for any human and environmental toll, Viacom's position is that the Environmental Protection Agency has exaggerated the damage. "The EPA's studies are flawed," said Carl Folta, Viacom's spokesman. For instance, he maintains that for Palmerton's children, "the likely source of any elevated blood levels is the lead paint in homes."

Proponents of more disclosure say that such disputes and reluctance to provide information about the toxic sites illustrate much about what ails the federal Superfund program, which was enacted in 1980. It authorized the EPA to identify the nation's most polluted sites and force companies to pay up to three times the actual cleanup costs.

But few people have been satisfied with the progress. "It's now cheaper for the company to pay a lawyer a million dollars a year" to file lawsuits that create a delay than to record a liability and clean up, said William Cooper, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "The current system does not work."

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