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Historic American Engineering Record/National Park Service

Clean Streak
New funds will help clean up festering hazardous waste sites.

More than a century ago, Roebling Steel Company workers in Florence Township, New Jersey, manufactured the wire cable used in such iconic structures as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building. But when the company closed its doors in the 1980s, it left behind a toxic legacy on its 200-acre property. The chromium, lead, and copper byproducts buried there eventually seeped into the soil and groundwater; pollution became so pervasive that in 1982 the EPA designated the grounds a Superfund, or abandoned hazardous waste, site. Decades later the cleanup is puttering along due to lack of funding and a difficult remediation process.

Now an influx of funds from the economic stimulus package, the $787 billion law intended to create or save jobs, will help the EPA accelerate the cleanup there and at other Superfund sites across the country. The government will dole out $600 million for remediation at 50 Superfund locations in 28 states, the EPA announced in April. That allocation will double the amount spent on Superfund cleanups this year.

“The money we provided in the recovery package for Superfund sites in New Jersey and nationwide is critical for putting people to work cleaning up polluted sites to protect the health of our communities,” says Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Superfund, Toxics, and Environmental Health subcommittee chair. “We also need to restore the ‘polluter pays’ principle to make sure polluters—not taxpayers—are footing the bill for Superfund cleanups.”

Since the inception of the program in 1980, the EPA has followed the “polluter pays” principle, making companies responsible for contamination assume cleanup costs. At about one-third of the roughly 1,300 designated sites, however, the business responsible is bankrupt, defunct, or unknown. In these instances, the agency typically assumes remediation responsibility and the financial burden falls to taxpayers. Even so there is rarely adequate funding for cleanups, which can take years, says Jim Woolford, the EPA’s Superfund remediation and technology innovation director.

For orphaned sites, like the Roebling one, there was a Superfund trust fund that included an environmental tax and levies on chemical and crude oil companies. But the tax expired in 1995 and the fund ran dry eight years later. The Obama administration has proposed a budget item that would reinstate the tax by 2011. Representatives have also introduced two bills that would reauthorize the tax, and Lautenberg plans to introduce one in the Senate this year.

In 2009 stimulus dollars will put a Band-Aid on the funding problem and slow the hemorrhage of pollution. But given the federal government’s renewed interest, some are hopeful that a more permanent solution is on the horizon. “If we can have the trust fund available,” says Woolford, “that would certainly help.”

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