Commentary

Toxic Super Wasteful

By Steven J. Milloy
August 8, 2004

“Almost one in 10 of the nation’s 1,230 Superfund toxic waste sites have not yet been cleaned up enough to guarantee that people and drinking water supplies won’t become contaminated,” reported the Associated Press.

“Environmentalists said those figures show the Bush administration is failing to protect public health, and Congress and the White House should reinstate a special tax to help fund the Superfund program,” the AP continued.

But this election-year attack on President Bush by environmental extremists rings hollow, which becomes clear once the Superfund program’s dirty secrets are revealed.

Superfund is the federal program providing for the clean-up of so-called toxic waste sites. The law was hastily passed after the 1980 elections by a lame-duck Congress and signed into law by a lame-duck President Carter.

And all that lame-ness became part-and-parcel of the Superfund program.

Clean-ups of Superfund sites were begun regardless of actual risks to local residents and environment, and regardless of cost. The Environmental Protection Agency infamously compelled site clean-ups base on unrealistic future scenarios such as a child consuming a teaspoon of the most contaminated soil from the middle of a landfill every day for years.

Sites originally selected to be cleaned up, the so-called National Priorities List, were not selected on the basis of threat to the local community or environment but on spreading the wealth. The National Priorities List was established so that every state could have a Superfund site, no doubt because the clean-up program was more about local jobs than environmental protection.

Businesses and landowners were forced to pay for clean-ups regardless whether they were responsible for disposing wastes at the sites and even if the disposals were done according to the existing law at the time.

Superfund clean-up became a booming industry with about $50 billion in revenues by the mid-1990s. The Government Accounting Office projected in 2001 that as much as $300 billion will be required to clean up government-owned Superfund sites alone.

And so we come to the most important but least known of Superfund’s “dirty” secrets — there has never been a single shred of evidence and not a single documented case of anyone ever becoming ill, getting cancer or dying because of contaminants at a Superfund site. That is based on my personal review of, and subsequent testimony to Congress in 1995 about, the records of more than 1,300 Superfund site histories prepared by the EPA. I have not seen any evidence or heard of any credible claim since that would change that.

Despite all the hype and hysteria about the supposed dangers posed by dreaded “toxic” waste sites, the actual casualty toll at Superfund sites according to the EPA’s records amounted to the following: some “number” of pine trees, a few thousand fish, fewer than 100 cattle, six birds and three ponies.

Even at the headline-grabbing Love Canal site or the Woburn, Mass., site featured in the John Travolta-movie “A Civil Action,” multiple studies have subsequently been unable to link the sites with any actual health effects in local populations.

Another dirty secret of the Superfund program is that, while there is no evidence anyone has been harmed by the contamination at Superfund sites, perhaps thousands of workers and others have been killed or injured as a result of construction and traffic accidents related to clean-ups.

According to a 1994 study by researchers at the National Safety Council, the likelihood of a fatality associated with excavation at a Superfund site is nearly 15 percent.

Workers have been killed removing and cleaning underground storage tanks. A man was killed and 87 others injured when a backhoe dislodged a gas pipeline and gas flowed into an adjacent senior citizens’ home in Allentown, Pa., in 1994.

Hospital attention was required by 116 factory workers in 1986, when a truck containing hazardous waste mistakenly spilled its contents into the factory ventilation system.

There are also numerous examples of hazardous wastes being spilled during transport to landfills and incinerators.

None of this advocates nonremediation of sites contaminated with wastes or sites where wastes are improperly disposed. They should be cleaned up, but only to that extent that makes sense — something not possible under the current Superfund law.

Environmental extremists now want to reimpose a tax on businesses to pay for the Superfund program. Because the Superfund program and the EPA were messes themselves, Congress wisely let the tax expire in 1995 and has not come close to re-enacting it since.

Over the last 24 years, the Superfund program has killed and injured more people, wasted more money and accomplished less than any domestic federal environmental program.

Congress should incinerate Superfund, dump its ashes in a landfill with an impermeable liner, and pave over the landfill to ensure the program never comes back. Where toxic waste sites are a legitimate problem, we need a program that cost-effectively cleans up truly hazardous sites and that does not penalize (or kill) innocent parties.

Steven Milloy, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (2001).