Group warns of continued expensive toxic waste cleanup
WASHINGTON (AP) – Government costs for cleaning up toxic waste sites under the Superfund program are expected to far outstrip money available in a special fund, a report to Congress warned.
The report said that despite expectations by some lawmakers that Superfund cleanup costs would decline with work completed at many sites, costs are not expected to ramp down for another eight years.
”There’s a lot more work to be done … and its going to be more expensive than people had anticipated,” said Katherine Probst, an author of the report released Tuesday by Resources for the Future, a Washington-based environmental think tank.
The report estimated the government will spend on Superfund cleanup programs $14 billion to $16.4 billion between 2000 and 2009, with annual costs of between $1.3 billion and $1.7 billion.
At the same time, the special fund for government cleanup programs has declined to about $650 million and likely will run out in 2002. This year, for the first time, more money was spent on Superfund from general tax revenues than from the fund which came from special taxes on the oil and chemical industries.
Congress rescinded the special Superfund tax after 1995, causing fund surpluses to be gradually depleted. The tax poured about $1.3 billion a year into the fund prior to 1996.
”The central question now facing Congress is whether there is enough money in the Superfund to continue to pay for the program,” the report said.
Tax opponents have argued that the tax is not needed because spending on the Superfund program would quickly decline as work is completed at most of waste sites.
While the report by Resources for the Future does not take a position on whether to the resume the tax, Probst said ”it’s clear there’s not enough money left to pay for 10 more years of …(cleanup) work.”
”It’s not realistic to think the costs of Superfund are going to decline much in the next 10 years,” said Probst, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.
Congress had requested the study to help lawmakers determine whether the Superfund tax should be resumed. If the fund runs out of money, more and more of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund costs will be covered by general tax revenue.
As of last month, there were 1,076 cleanup sites, excluding those owned by the federal government, on the Superfund priority cleanup list. At 739 sites the EPA has declared that construction and waste removal activities had been completed.
Some of these sites also may require more work, however, according to the study. An examination of 99 of the sites where work supposedly had been completed found that at half of them the remedies were ”not fully implemented, not fully functioning as designed or are unlikely to meet cleanup objectives.”
The priority list also is expected to grow, although the researchers said the number of additional sites, their size and the cost of cleanup are difficult to predict.
An additional 61 sites are already waiting to be added soon and more are expected to be included in years to come.
The study did not cover sites owned by the Energy Department or other federal agencies, nor hundreds of other toxic waste sites being cleaned up under state programs.
The study’s cost estimates also did not include money being spent by private parties found responsible for the waste, which experts believe accounts for about 70 percent of the total cleanup expenditures at Superfund sites.
The EPA Superfund expenditures, covered by the study, are used to manage the program and pay for cleanup at so-called ”orphan” sites where no one has been found to be responsible for the contamination or where the responsible parties have failed to act.
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