"Congress, We Have A Problem"

Earth Day 1996

April 1, 1996

"Congress, We Have A Problem": Toxic Dumps

The 104th Congress has been aggressively attacking the Superfund law, which governs the cleanup of toxic waste dumps across the country. Representative Michael Oxley (R-OH) and Senator Robert Smith (R-NH) have introduced bills that would bail out polluters and severely slow down cleanup of toxic dumps.

Current law strongly encourages permanent cleanup of all toxic dump sites. Both the House and Senate bills reverse this policy, preferring cheaper controls such as fencing off dump sites instead of removing toxic materials.

The House and Senate bills would also allow polluters to challenge hundreds of cleanup plans that are already in place, requiring EPA to spend taxpayer money on litigation instead of pollution cleanup. And both bills artificially cap the number of sites that can be added to the Superfund program at 125, leaving hundreds of additional sites that would ultimately be cleaned up at taxpayer expense or not cleaned up at all.

The most recent draft of the bill released by Senate leaders would shift an estimated $1 billion a year in clean-up costs from polluters to the program, by effectively repealing polluter responsibility for much of the toxic wastes disposed of prior to 1980. The most recent draft of the bill released by House Republicans would abolish all liability for polluters who generated and transported waste prior to 1987. Even giant corporations would get off the hook for all toxic wastes they sent off-site prior to 1987.

How it Hurts the Nation

Limiting the Superfund program would delay, forego, or shift the costs of clean-up to taxpayers for many of the important National Priority List (NPL) sites nationwide.

Toxic waste sites are placed on the National Priority List after EPA has made an assessment of the relative environmental threats posed on-site, as well as environmental and human health threats posed by contamination of groundwater, surface water and air. Currently there are almost 1,300 NPL toxic waste sites nationwide identified by the EPA. Five states--New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, New York and Michigan--account for over one-third of the toxic waste sites on this EPA list. Sites where improperly disposed toxic materials now require extensive and expensive cleanup and monitoring include:

  • The U.S. Radium Corporation site, in the city of Orange, NJ. The 2-acre site is a former processing facility for radioactive radium ore. The soil contains radium-226, which decays to radon gas and radioactive products which can concentrate in basements and other ground-level enclosed spaces. In 1993, EPA proposed to excavate and dispose of radium-contaminated material in 110 to 120 residential and commercial properties around the site. This cleanup is scheduled for completion in 1998.
  • Hudson River PCBs site, a 40-mile stretch between Fort Edward and Troy in upstate New York at the headwaters of the Hudson River. General Electric discharged approximately 1 million pounds of PCBs into the river from two capacitor manufacturing plants. This contamination potentially impacts the entire 200 miles of the Hudson , all the way to New York City. The state has banned fishing on the Upper Hudson and commercial fishing of striped bass in the Lower Hudson. The Hudson is used to supplement New York City's water supply in times of drought.
  • The Palmerton Zinc Pile in Carbon County, PA. The site covers more than 2,000 acres and was used formerly by a zinc smelter. Thirty-two million tons of residue were dumped at the site before 1980, creating a cinder bank that extends for 2.5 miles and measures about 200 feet high and 500 to 1,000 feet wide. The air near the site is contaminated with heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and zinc, and Aquashicola Creek is contaminated with heavy metal runoff. Contaminants have been found in soil and garden vegetables; children in Palmerton have been found to have elevated levels of cadmium and lead in their blood.
  • Montrose Chemical Corporation plant in Los Angeles County where DDT was manufactured for thirty five years until 1982. Various former storage and processing areas of the 13 acre site are now heavily contaminated. Soil in the backyards of nearby homes was found to contain "bowling ball-sized chunks" of pure DDT, apparently dumped there as fill before the homes were built. Three thousand people live and work within 1/4 mile of the waste site. Four interconnected aquifers under the site are contaminated. Former drinking water wells have been shut down. Contamination from yet another Superfund site, adjacent to Montrose, has also been detected in the groundwater.
  • Bofors Nobel, Inc. in Muskegon, MI where on-site lagoons have been used for disposal of sludge, wastewater and wastes containing methylene chloride and benzene since the 1960's. In the mid-1970's groundwater under the site was found to be contaminated and purge wells were installed to intercept contaminated groundwater before it reached a nearby creek. Approximately 6,400 people obtain drinking water from private wells within 3 miles of the site.