Hazardous Waste Makes Cities Miserable

Forbes has created a “Misery Measure” to rank the country’s 150 biggest metro areas, and I wasn’t surprised to see Detroit awarded the title of Most Miserable City. What did surprise me, though, was one of the factors Forbes considered: number of Superfund sites. Kudos to them for acknowledging that hazardous waste has a way of interfering with residents’ happiness.

The article doesn’t go into detail about Superfund misery; for that, we can look at an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, which discovered that site cleanups are dragging, companies are forking over less to clean up the messes they made, and many hazardous sites are going without much-needed work. The Center’s Joaquin Sampson elaborates:

The Superfund program was launched in 1980 in the wake of a national tragedy that unfolded at Love Canal, N.Y. Lois Gibbs, a housewife-turned-activist who would come to be known as the “Mother of Superfund,” discovered that her family’s and neighbors’ sickness could be traced to toxic waste buried underneath her hometown decades earlier by Occidental Petroleum Co.

Initially, the program was funded by a tax on polluters, which fed the actual “Superfund,” a pool of money used to pay for the cleanup of sites whose polluters were unknown or unable to do the work. But the tax law expired in 1995, under a Republican-controlled Congress, and the $3.8 billion that had accumulated in the fund at its peak ran dry in 2003.

The program is now funded with taxpayer dollars and money that the EPA manages to recover from polluters for work the agency has done at their sites.

But Superfund’s budget has not kept up with inflation. In 1995, the program received $1.43 billion in appropriations; 12 years later, it received $1.25 billion. In inflation-adjusted dollars, funding has declined by 35 percent. …

Financial constraints are so severe that much of the program’s cleanup money is being spent on 10 to 12 large projects, according to the EPA. With less money, the EPA has also started looking at the cheapest remedies when it’s paying the bill, critics say.

At an abandoned creosote factory in Pensacola, Fla., for example, plans are underway to place a giant tarp and layers of clay and soil over a nearly 600,000-cubic-yard mound of chemical waste — a measure that many observers consider inadequate and inefficient, largely because the community’s groundwater could become contaminated. …

Over the past several years, funding constraints have forced sites ranked by the National Risk-Based Priority Panel to compete for money left over from cleanups completed in previous years. These “deobligated funds” make up a significant amount of the money used to clean up sites that are ready to receive funding. …

“It is like having four sick kids at a table, and you only have one aspirin,” said Love Canal’s Gibbs. “You can’t decide which one to give it to even though they all need assistance, and, like a Superfund site, those illnesses are going to get worse and those medical costs are going to get higher the longer it takes you to address the problem.”

Contaminated groundwater and no cleanup in sight? Sounds like a recipe for misery – and one that’s being cooked up across the country. The Center’s analysis found that nearly half of the U.S. population lives within ten miles of one of the 1,304 active and proposed Superfund sites.

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