by Julie Titone

The nation's biggest source of money to clean its most polluted places is in danger of disappearing long before the job is done. It's already becoming Superfund Lite.

Unless Congress acts this year to change the situation, the Environmental Protection Agency will have little cash to clean up areas where the polluter is long gone or bankrupt. Because that describes a lot of mining sites, many places in the West are likely to remain toxic.

"EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman told us she's thinking about using remaining money to work on the more problematic sites, 112 sites with cleanup costs that top $50 million [each]," says Lindsay Nothern, spokesman for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

That's only 9 percent of the 1,222 sites now on the EPA's national priorities list, known as the NPL. Another estimated 1,300 places are waiting to be added. In fact, an independent research group has estimated that the need for cleanup money won't drop for eight years. Looking into the matter at the request of Congress last year, Resources for the Future estimated the government could spend $14 billion to $16.4 billion on Superfund programs between 2000 and 2009, with annual costs of between $1.3 billion and $1.7 billion.

To emphasize the seriousness of the problem, environmental activists note that groundwater contamination -- a threat to human health -- exists at 85 percent of Superfund sites.

"One in four Americans lies within a mile or two of a Superfund site," says Wesley Warren, a senior fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I really don't think the program will pass away. The problem is just too serious where these problems exist."

How did the situation get so dire?

The 1980 law that created Superfund imposed excise taxes on the petroleum and chemical industries as well as an environmental income tax on corporations. The cash went into the Hazardous Substance Superfund Trust Fund. In return, those industries were exempt from liability in certain cases. The trust fund was supplemented with 10 to 20 percent more money from the federal general fund.

Congress did not reauthorize the Superfund tax when it expired in 1995. The following year, the trust fund was at its highest level ever: $3.6 billion. It's been dropping ever since. By 2004, the fund will be empty.

Unless the tax is reinstated, the only cleanup money will come from taxpayers' pockets. President Bush's recent budget proposal calls for $1.3 billion in cleanup next year, with $593 million from the trust fund and $700 million from the treasury.

Former President Bill Clinton regularly asked Congress to reauthorize the Superfund tax. He had no luck, despite improvements that his administration made to the program, including ones applauded by industry.

During each of Clinton's last four years in office, 80 sites were cleaned up and checked off the priorities list. In President Bush's first year, the number was 47; his latest budget proposal calls for 40. One explanation for the drop is a decrease in money to do the job; another is the fact that many smaller, easier sites have been cleaned up. Many of the biggest remain, such as removal of mining-waste hotspots throughout the huge Coeur d'Alene River basin.

Despite the huge workload, Bush is not asking for reauthorization of the tax.

"One of the concerns I know the president has had about the way the Superfund tax is imposed is that it's not all on the polluters," EPA Administrator Whitman told a House Appropriations subcommittee on March 12. "It is on everyone in an industry, so that even those that have the best of environmental records are also paying."

Environmentalists continue to call the expired levy on industry a "polluter pays" tax and are eager to see it reinstated. In a Feb. 26 letter to Whitman, representatives of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Sierra Club and nine other groups wrote that, "The federal government has not reauthorized the tax since 1995. As a result, during a time of record economic activity and corporate profits, polluters enjoyed a tax holiday to the tune of over $1 billion a year. Meanwhile, the federal government has vastly increased the amount of money it takes regularly from taxpayers. In 2001 and 2002, during a time of economic downturn, the administration took $635 [million] and $700 million dollars from general revenue to help fund the Superfund program."

Nothern notes that changing national priorities could make it tougher to get more general fund money for Superfund. "Are there bigger fish to fry as far as the budget goes in this time of war and homeland security?"

Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington is among those worried that the burden of cleanup is being shifted from industry to individual taxpayers.

"Clearly, this is something Congress needs to address," says Cantwell spokeswoman Jennifer Crider. "The president's budget is a starting point."

Another Western Democrat, California Sen. Barbara Boxer, has long advocated reauthorization of the Superfund tax. As the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works' Superfund Subcommittee, she's expected to hold a hearing on the issue this spring.

Senators are sure to hear testimony that a lack of Superfund money will reduce the chances that a company will clean up its own mess. Seventy percent of Superfund sites are cleaned up by so-called "potentially responsible parties."

"Our ability to encourage the PRPs to pick up and do this job is partly a function of our ability to say, 'If you don't do it, we'll do it and bill you later,' '' says Mike Gearheard, EPA's director of environmental cleanup in the Northwest. "It's the one really wonderful thing about Superfund."

If a PRP dragged its heels on cleanup of a site, the EPA used to have Superfund money available to do the work. Then they sent the bill to the business. That approach was always likely to cost the company a lot more than just doing the work itself. Superfund money has also been used to investigate the extent of the pollution problem, and to oversee cleanup. Without that money, the cleanup won't get done even if the PRP is willing to pay.

While it's early in the budgeting process, members of Congress are starting to hear from voters worried that money won't be available to clean up pollution in their area. That includes people who, hoping to avoid the stigma associated with the Superfund label, did their best to keep a given site off the national priorities list in the first place.

"The NPL is the safety net out there, when there is no other way to get things done," says Dave Williams, list coordinator for the Rocky Mountain region. He pointed to Boulder County, Colo., where a citizens' task force looked hard for some other way to stop pollution seeping into their streams from abandoned mine and mill sites. After much agonizing, he says, task force members decided that Superfund was the only answer.

Now they're wondering if the money will dry up before the flow of toxic metals is stopped.

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