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Superfund Could Be Weakened By Recommendations From EPA Subcommittee

Since President Bush took office, the Superfund program's budget has decreased by 25 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, and some 50 percent fewer sites have been cleaned up, according to a report produced by the Sierra Club and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. In fiscal year 2003, the Bush administration completed cleanups at only 40 Superfund toxic-waste sites, whereas an average of 87 Superfund cleanups were completed per year between 1996 and 2000.

Industry representatives and Bush officials argue that these numbers are misleading because many of the easiest-to-tackle Superfund sites were cleaned up early in the program's history, leaving behind bigger, more complex sites that take longer to deal with. Environmentalists counter that so-called "mega-sites" have been part of the agency's agenda for decades, and the shortfall is due to meager funding and a flimsy commitment to the Superfund cause.

... Among the range of recommendations [in a report released in April by an EPA subcommittee, which was accused of being loaded with industry representatives] that dissenting subcommittee members found problematic was the notion that sites be added to Superfund's National Priority List based on EPA's budgetary constraints, weighing the financial viability of site cleanups instead of focusing on how much of a threat sites pose to public health. Even more alarming to some was the suggestion that sites be cleaned up based on their potential to be redeveloped for commercial purposes -- a proposal that would disadvantage the cleanup of sites in rural communities and inner-city areas, which are generally less favorable markets for commercial development.

If the remaining sites are complex "mega-sites," that seems like a good reason to boost funding. The public health impacts aren't lessened by the complexity of the site, so complex sites demand more resources.

I have to disagree with the dissenters, though, on dismissing cost-effectiveness criteria for prioritizing cleanups. It sounds nice and high-minded to say public health should be the only issue. But when funding is as tight as they claim, it's even more crucial to get the best bang for our buck. One could plausibly argue -- and I'd be inclined to take this position, given that the NPL is hard to get on or off of, and thus far less changeable than budgets -- that NPL listing should be based purely on health considerations, but that the choice of which NPL sites to focus on remediating should be based on cost effectiveness. But that's really just shifting the issue back one stage.


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