Many toxic waste threats are history but Superfund lives on

September 29, 2010

The Obama Administration wants a new corporate tax to support the Superfund program, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently said she backs the idea. Monday, New York City received a major Superfund designation. San Francisco is expected to receive one soon.

What is Superfund? A “temporary” federal program enacted 30 years ago on an “emergency” basis. Its original purpose long since having expired, Superfund lives on.

Superfund is an object lesson in how government programs simply never end. A thousand years from now at the Mare Erythraeum on Mars, the city of New New Orleans will be demanding “temporary” Superfund money.

An actual program that worked

Until the late 1970s, federal law and most state laws did not regulate the disposal of toxic waste – the result was leaking chemicals at Love Canal, New York, Times Beach, Missouri, and other places. In response, in 1980, Congress passed the Superfund statute to finance toxic-waste cleanups. Promoted as an emergency measure that would be on the books only a short time, Superfund proved an effective tool, stabilizing then cleaning up dangerous leaked wastes.

Simultaneously, regulations of the late 1970s through mid 1980s imposed tight controls on the disposal of toxic chemicals, preventing new Love Canals from occurring. Combined, these actions represent an argument that government actually can solve problems.

Endangered species saved by toxic waste

Lots of Superfund-classified locations — where there were minor spills — are still on the EPA’s list, but by around 1990, the worrisome sites no longer imperiled public health. In 1991, the National Research Council found the toxic threat from old waste sites largely concluded, while also finding that the risk to public health was limited to a few locations, usually from toxics leaking into drinking water.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado, where the Army once made nerve gas, was considered the most dangerous waste site when Superfund began. The area became so clean that since 1992 it has been a National Wildlife Refuge. Endangered species saved by toxic waste? Only in America!

But programs never, ever end

Though the Superfund emergency concluded two decades ago, the “temporary” law remains on the books, albeit without its own corporate tax since 1995. A Superfund tax on petrochemical manufacturers expired that year; the levy is what Pelosi wants to revive.  Revenues would not be used to pay down the national debt, rather, to make grants to communities.

Essentially, Superfund has become a backdoor means of awarding money to local governments in places that voted for whichever party is in power – that’s why New York City and San Francisco are scrambling for Superfund cash before Washington gets reshuffled yet again. Newtown Creek in New York does indeed need a cleanup, but is not a toxic threat to public health, what the Superfund law was about. And in any case, why should the federal government pay for cleanup of water pollution that New York State residents caused? In cases like this, Superfund is just a political cookie jar.

The Superfund law is an exemplar of the “temporary” government program that remains in operation long after its purpose has been fulfilled. Spending money for the sake of spending money has become the law’s rationale.

Aren’t toxic wastes causing cancer?

Cancer rates are in decline, probably in part because regulators cracked down on toxic wastes in the 1970s. The epidemiologist Devra Davis, author of the terrific 2002 book “When Smoke Ran Like Water”, which chronicled the impact of postwar pollution on public health, has estimated that Americans’ exposure to artificial toxic substances peaked roughly in the 1960s, then began to decline as regulations took effect. That exposure decline is mirrored at least in part in the current cancer decline. (“In part” because the causes of cancer are still not fully understood.)

What happened to “the poisoning of America?”

Once toxic waste sites were said by the media to represent a super-ultra menace. This 1980 Time cover proclaimed “The Poisoning of America.” Because the toxic-waste problem has been solved, we’re all still here. Yet Superfund soldiers on, with most of today’s journalists seeming not to know what it is.

When Pelosi proposed new Superfund taxes, press reports seemed to reflect a false assumption that there’s still a toxic waste emergency. That is surely what environmental fundraisers hope you will believe.

Toxic waste scares are a political tool

In 1996, President Bill Clinton used data from the Superfund locations inventory to declare, “Ten million children under 12 still live within four miles of a toxic waste dump.” Sounds like the sort of thing that justifies a massive government program. The statement was true but hollow, since most waste sites had long since been stabilized and posed no threat. And you might as well say, “100 percent of children live within 50 feet of deadly chemicals,” since all houses contain some compounds that are deadly if you are exposed to them. Exposure to toxic waste has ended, at least in the United States. The “temporary” Superfund program marches on.

Superfund status can backfire

The unintended consequence of the 1980 law was creation of the “brownfields” problem – no one will redevelop old industrial land. Superfund imposes “joint and several liability,” meaning any one party using Superfund land is liable for what all other parties may have done. This has been one factor driving industry out of U.S. urban areas – you’d be nuts to purchase old industrial land, knowing tort lawyers will appear the following day and demand payments for past mistakes you had nothing to do with.

Leadville, Colorado, where chemicals washing out of mine tailings once threatened drinking water, years ago cleaned up its worst problems and has been fighting to get “delisted” as a Superfund area. Leadville might gentrify, but not till the Superfund stigma, and its liability, are gone. One reason the problem still isn’t solved is that some Colorado history societies – run, surely, by people who do not live in Leadville — are demanding the piles of toxic tailings be preserved.

But isn’t it good that the federal government helps even if the cleanups are minor?

Because Superfund evolved into a complex lawyers-and-courts-driven program, the recent pace has become glacial. Maryland just asked for Superfund designation for two sites, neither of which pose any known threat to health.

Superfund designation would require “six to seven years” of federal studies. Cleanup? “Actual cleanup… could take several decades.”  Why then is Maryland filing? The state hopes to win about $20 million to spend.

Try to name a government program that ended

Superfund did a fine job on its initial, valid objective. Now it’s a boondoggle. If Congress lacks the courage to end this program, how will any form of spending ever be controlled?


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Excellent article, Gregg.
That’s what I call serious journalism.

And btw, someone at Reuters should better take care of cleaning up the spam comments posted here.

Posted by yr2009 | Report as abusive

Believe me. Leadville won’t gentrify. It’s the highest town of any real size in the country. I’ve been there in the summer and “rather cold and bleak” would be my description.

Posted by nadie | Report as abusive

“Try to name a government program that ended”
Cash for Clunkers

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Thanks for mentioning Leadville, Nadie, Your post didn’t specify the issues, but they’ve got a BIG problem with old lead mines. 218/COLUMNS/128433589

To imply that we don’t need federal help with toxic cleanups is just preposterous. We have more unregulated toxics in our environment than ever!

The author states that cancer rates are down…. INCA.aspx

The CDC states otherwise. Cancer DEATHS are down because of innovations in diagnostics and treatment. The above linked interactive chart does not reference all the auto-immune diseases that are becoming epidemic, also endocrine system issues.

Nope, you can’t wish this stuff away, or pretend it’s a problem that no longer exists. It sounds to me like the author has an agenda about “smaller government”

Posted by Borderslot | Report as abusive

Gregg Easterbrook says “the toxic-waste problem has been solved”. If that’s true, then why are there more than 1300 sites still on the cleanup list?? nd/

Posted by moebadderman | Report as abusive

> the toxic-waste problem has been solved

Not so fast. Horizontal hydrofracking is producing thousands of new mini-Love Canals. Driving through SW PA last weekend, (where horizontal hydrofracking is in full swing) I saw this sign in front of a water testing company on Route 30:

“MARCELLUS SHALE Gas Drilling Near You? Test your WATER here.”

Remove the hydraulic fracturing exemptions from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Superfund, and a host of other federal environmental rules.

Posted by CutRedTape | Report as abusive

moebadderman I think that’s Gregg’s point. It is financially advantageous to be on the list. Then you become eligible for government handouts. Basically Superfund has become a slush fund for Senators and Representatives to dole out money as payback to supporters.

Posted by disneyoldguy | Report as abusive

These days, we get to read or hear about tragic events caused by man’s failure to properly dispose hazardous waste. Some dump their toxic chemicals in rivers or at sea while others throw them together with regular trash which is also not safe. With this, it is important that we learn the proper ways of dealing with toxic chemicals and waste (  ) not just for our safety but for the environment as well.

Posted by ChemPack | Report as abusive