Toxic sites lie wasting as Superfunds dry up

New Jersey activist outraged by slow pace of cleanup at Edison, N.J.

October 27, 2002|By Elizabeth Shogren | Elizabeth Shogren,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EDISON, N.J. - For 11 years, Robert Spiegel spent his nights creating elaborate wedding cakes and his days trying to force the government to clean up the arsenic, lead, dioxin and other lethal chemicals that saturate a 6-acre lot nestled between suburban homes and a factory-sized bakery.

His commitment seemed about to pay off when, after years of studies and planning, federal Environmental Protection Agency officials announced a $28.5 million cleanup of the site where Chemical Insecticide Corp. had once manufactured a range of deadly chemicals, including the components of Agent Orange. Work was to begin this fall.

But a few months ago, local EPA officials told Spiegel not to expect the cleanup to begin anytime soon. More recently, a report by the EPA inspector general named the Chemical Insecticide site as one of 33 priority Superfund sites in 19 states that had not received funding requested by EPA branch offices.

"It's like getting the wind knocked out of you," said an outraged Spiegel, as he stood amid about 60 barrels of hazardous materials left at the site.

With a number of sites around the country denied financing and the Superfund close to running out of money, there is growing concern at the grass-roots level that years of hard work to clean toxic waste sites may end in futility.

Created in 1980

Congress and President Jimmy Carter created the Superfund program in 1980 in response to the public outcry over the toxic disaster at Love Canal in New York. The trust fund, which was financed through taxes on polluting industries and court awards for hazardous substance releases, provided money for cleanups on sites where the polluters could not be charged. By the program's 20th anniversary, 757 sites had been cleaned nationwide.

But the fund is expected to be all but depleted by the end of next year, leaving it to scarce general tax revenue to pay for any further cleanups.

Spiegel and other supporters of the program attribute the idleness at Chemical Insecticide and other toxic sites to the Bush administration's failure to renew the tax, which expired in 1995. President Bill Clinton proposed renewing it, but the GOP-controlled Congress balked.

"The perception that things are slowing down is arising from the fact that so much hysteria has been created in the community," said EPA spokesman Joe Martyak.

Marianne L. Horinko, the assistant EPA administrator in charge of the Superfund program, called Spiegel's concerns "unfounded." "I'm not slowing anything down," she said.

Since the inspector general's report, about half of the 33 Superfund sites have either been allocated some federal cleanup funds or determined to be not ready for cleanup. But at least 16 sites are still listed as ready, but without the funding.

These stalled cleanups and the failure to reinstate the tax have contributed to growing grass-roots skepticism about the federal government's commitment to the program, according to local environmentalists and members of Congress with sites in their districts.

"With the trust fund declining, there is a lot more uncertainty about future funding," said Karen N. Probst, the author of a congressionally ordered report released last year on the Superfund's future. "And with the Bush administration's environmental track record, when the Bush administration says they're committed to Superfund, people aren't that sure."

Credibility at stake

If the government fails to clean up the Superfund sites quickly - after communities have slogged through the extensive application, testing and planning stages - the program's reputation could be undermined, said Probst, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on the economics of environmental problems.

"It took them 12 years to get to where they are," Probst said, referring to the activists in Edison. "The whole program's credibility will be hurt if there are projects in the pipeline for that long and then EPA has to stop cleanups."

On a recent afternoon, the back gate was wide open at the long-abandoned Chemical Insecticide Corp. The only indication of the potential danger inside was a sign face down in the dirt that read: "Danger no trespassing; hazardous substances present."

In the 1950s and 1960s a variety of pesticides and herbicides, including DDT and the components of Agent Orange, were produced here and shipped as far as Vietnam. Excess chemicals were dumped into several large pits. Through the years, the chemicals migrated across the parking lot of a large bakery and into a brook that flows through an apartment complex.

In 1969, when the plant was still functioning, six cows died after drinking water in that brook. The plant owner was fined $200, according to a newspaper article.

The plant buildings were razed long ago. Nature appears to have reclaimed the site with shrubs, trees and weeds.

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