Study shows Superfund may be depleted in 10 years
The high cost of cleaning up toxic sites like the Leviathan Mine east of Markleeville may deplete the federal government’s Superfund in the next 10 years, according to a study commissioned by Congress.
Policy think tank Resources For the Future concluded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may not have enough money to clean up the 562 old mines, chemical plants, landfills, rivers and other contaminated Superfund sites.
Conceived by Democrats in 1980, the Superfund program was established to provide the EPA with financial and legal tools to clean up the nation’s worst toxic waste dumps.
The program first assigns cleanup costs to polluters responsible for the mess. Taxes from industries including oil, gas and chemical companies were put into a trust fund to foot the federal part of the bill.
However, those taxes expired at the end of 1995, leaving a hefty sum in the account but no income. Congress would have to spend $14 billion to $16.4 billion over the next decade to remediate the growing number of hazardous waste sites qualifying for Superfund status, the study found.
“It’s just not realistic to think the costs of Superfund are going to decline much in the next 10 years,” said Katherine Probst, a senior fellow. “Though our study does not address whether or not the now-expired taxes that stocked the trust fund should be reimposed, it’s clear there’s not enough money left to pay for 10 more years of EPA work.”
In 1999, nonfederal site cleanup and administrative costs totaled $1.54 billion. At the end of fiscal year 2000, only $1.3 billion was left in the Superfund trust fund.
“Congress needs to clarify the role and priorities (of the sites),” Probst said. “The EPA and individual states need to do a better job of identifying sites destined for the National Priorities List in the future, especially new ‘megasites,’ which, at an average cost of $140 million, are 10 times more expensive than most other sites.”
Leviathan Mine, located east of Markleeville in Alpine County, is one of those megasites.
The mine was put on the National Priorities List for cleanup in May 2000 and the federal bill alone since then has exceeded $1 million, according to EPA project manager Kevin Mayer.
Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board purchased the abandoned sulfur mine in 1984 from the Atlantic Richfield Co.
Lahontan spent $5 million in the ’80s to clean up the orange- and yellow-colored acid water running into the Leviathan Creek, a tributary to the Carson River. Lahontan has spent nearly $3 million in the last three years, and Arco is expected to contribute $1 million a year for the next couple of years.
No aquatic life can live in the bright orange Leviathan Creek that joins the crystal mountain water of Mountaineer Creek.
Mayer said the EPA is hoping to develop a plan to treat the seeping arsenic, copper, lead and zinc of the Leviathan Mine. However, he said the pollution will exist for more than a lifetime.
“It will be great to get past the legacy of the last years of just treating the problem. Ultimately, we want to get to a long-term solution, with a combination of treatment and prevention of generation,” Mayer said. “But we really are not completely comfortable with the long-term health of Bryant Creek. Unless one were able to seal off this 250-acre mess of broken-up rock from any clean water coming in or going out then there will be some acid generation for well beyond years and decades.”
Although the Superfund is depleting rapidly, EPA officials don’t think there will be any imminent danger of Leviathan’s losing federal funding.
Leo Kay, spokesman at the regional EPA office in San Francisco, said most of the California Superfund sites are paid for by the private industries that created the pollution.
“Superfund is a very worthwhile program but unfortunately it’s also a very expensive program,” Kay said. “It’s up to Congress to make sure the money gets appropriated.”
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