The Not-So Superfund

Congress lets fund to hold companies responsible for cleaning up their pollution run dry

Chelsea Ross

The Outboard Marine Co. Superfund site in Waukegan, Ill.

About 40 miles north of Chica­go, in Waukegan, Ill., a par­cel of land sits between the Waukegan Har­bor and the shore of Lake Michi­gan. Known as the Out­board Marine Corp. Super­fund site, it’s where mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies – includ­ing Gen­er­al Motors, North Shore Gas and the Out­board Marine Corp. – dumped tox­ic waste for near­ly a cen­tu­ry. Although it’s been a super­fund site for more than 20 years, much work remains to be done.

Accord­ing to Wast­ing Away,” a report pub­lished in April by the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Integri­ty (CPI), a D.C.-based pub­lic inter­est group, the Out­board Marine site is not alone. CPI found that under the Bush admin­is­tra­tion, the rate of Super­fund site cleanup has been dra­mat­i­cal­ly slow­er due to dimin­ished fund­ing. Cleanup work was start­ed at about 145 sites in the past six years,” it reads, while the start­up rate was near­ly three times as high for the pre­vi­ous six years.” 

In 1980, Con­gress passed the Com­pre­hen­sive Envi­ron­men­tal Response, Com­pen­sa­tion, and Lia­bil­i­ty Act to make com­pa­nies liable for pol­lu­tion cleanup costs. The pro­gram, and its 1,304 des­ig­nat­ed sites, became com­mon­ly known as Super­fund, after the large trust fund that held the tax­es levied on pol­lut­ing com­pa­nies. This super” fund helped pay for cleanups at orphan sites, those where poten­tial­ly respon­si­ble par­ties either would not, or sim­ply could not, pay. 

Super­fund has always gone after com­pa­nies that caused con­t­a­m­i­na­tion,” says Bill Muno, who man­aged Super­fund for the Great Lakes Region from 1995 to 2005. But there used to be a sur­plus of mon­ey to pay for sites where com­pa­nies were recal­ci­trant or bankrupt.” 

How­ev­er, in 1995, the Repub­li­can Con­gress refused to reau­tho­rize the tax when it expired, and by 2003 the trust fund had evap­o­rat­ed. With the tax in place, 75 per­cent of fund­ing came from pol­luter tax­es and 25 per­cent came from gov­ern­ment appro­pri­a­tions. Con­gress now appro­pri­ates 100 per­cent of gen­er­al funds. 

While the actu­al amount allo­cat­ed to the pro­gram has var­ied lit­tle, Super­fund has lost 35 per­cent of its funds due to infla­tion, which, accord­ing to Muno, has had a seri­ous impact. 

When I was in the pro­gram, if we need­ed mon­ey, we would go to the fund and it was there,” says Muno. Now there’s a back­log of projects that need mon­ey that out­weighs what Con­gress appropriates.” 

Mick Hans, who took over Muno’s posi­tion at the EPA, says that the rate of progress has slowed because we took care of the low-hang­ing fruit first. The sites that are left are more com­plex and take longer to clean.”

Muno dis­agrees. In the old days, we dealt with imme­di­ate threat and resid­ual waste all at once. Now it takes much longer and often the EPA won’t fund the entire cleanup at once – they’ll just do a par­tial cleanups.”

That’s what hap­pened at the Parson’s Cas­ket Hard­ware site in Belvedere, Ill. A por­tion of the con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed soil was removed in 1984, but rusty drums and tanks still sit in what is now a fenced-in field of tall grass and wild­flow­ers. The ground­wa­ter is still con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed, but since it does not infil­trate the community’s drink­ing water, the Parson’s site isn’t high on the list of cleanup pri­or­i­ties. It could take years to receive funds from Superfund. 

In Waukegan, city and state offi­cials aren’t wait­ing for Super­fund to pay for the cleanup. Instead, they are work­ing to secure a grant from an unre­lat­ed EPA pro­gram. But Waukegan’s sit­u­a­tion is rare – most sites don’t have oth­er options. 

In 2004 and 2005, the EPA request­ed $150 mil­lion increas­es in the Super­fund bud­get, but Con­gress did not have any inter­est in increas­ing the fund­ing,” says Bet­sy Suther­land, Superfund’s direc­tor of assess­ment and remediation.

Muno points to the amount of fed­er­al fund­ing going to the Depart­ment of Defense to explain Con­gress’ bud­get­ing decisions. 

What would help Super­fund the most” says Muno, would be to rein­state a cor­po­rate envi­ron­men­tal tax, so some out­side funds would con­tribute to the costs, but that’s not like­ly to hap­pen under this administration.”

Chelsea Ross is a Chica­go-based free­lance writer, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and graph­ic designer.
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