Bush Slashing Aid for E.P.A. Cleanup at 33 Toxic Sites

By Katherine Q. Seelye
The New York Times

The Bush administration has designated 33 toxic waste sites in 18 states for cuts in financing under the Superfund cleanup program, according to a new report to Congress by the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The cuts, imposed because the cleanup fund is hundreds of millions of dollars short of the amount needed to keep the program on schedule, mean that work is likely to grind to a halt on some of the most seriously polluted sites in the country, confronting the surrounding communities with new uncertainty over when the work will resume, how quickly it will proceed and who will pay for it.

Among the sites that for now would receive less money in some cases, none are a manufacturing plant in Edison, N.J., where the herbicide Agent Orange was produced, several chemical plants in Florida and two old mines in Montana. The report to Congress is the first public listing by the environmental agency of where it intends to cut Superfund spending. It was provided to The New York Times by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who oppose the cuts.

The administration had already indicated it would scale back spending from the special fund that pays for cleaning up sites where the original polluter has gone out of business or is otherwise unable to pay for remediation. The fund has been running out of money since Congress refused several years ago to extend the taxes on industry that had replenished it each year. It once contained billions of dollars from those taxes.

The administration wants to reduce the payments from the fund by covering fewer sites. To do that it would shift the costs of further work to the government's general accounts, paid for by all taxpayers. Congressional critics have said this amounts to abandoning the precept that "the polluter pays," on which the Superfund program was founded.

While Congress theoretically could override the administration's plan and impose a different approach, Congress has failed in past years to resolve bitter, often partisan, differences among lawmakers on how to revamp the program, and no consensus on it has emerged this year.

Regional offices of the environmental agency had asked for $450 million for remedial action at the 33 sites, but the administration has allocated only $228 million, the inspector general's report says.

Like all sites covered by the Superfund program, the 33 that are targeted for reductions are among the most contaminated grounds in the country and pose some level of health and environmental hazards to their communities. The documents provided by the inspector general did not indicate how these sites were chosen for cuts.

The report makes clear that under the administration's approach the costs of cleaning up these sites would eventually shift to all taxpayers, and that in the meantime the whole program would be slowed down.

It also shows that the administration is putting less money into continuing 54 long-term remediation projects around the country. Regional offices of the Environmental Protection Agency had requested $46.7 million, but the administration is giving them $33.2 million.

Two Congressional Democrats, Representatives John D. Dingell of Michigan and Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, asked the environmental agency's inspector general for the report in April and provided a copy to The Times. Both represent states with heavy concentrations of Superfund sites.

Businesses have long complained about the Superfund program. At one time, chemical and oil companies, among others, were required to pay a special tax that cost them collectively about $1 billion a year. The tax went into the fund to clean up contaminated sites, but businesses said the system of allocating the money was unwieldy and badly managed.

The report identifies five sites for spending reductions in New Jersey, five in Florida, three in Texas, one in New York and one or two in several other states as well as in the Virgin Islands. The sites have been in various stages of cleanup over decades.

For example, in Edison, the Chemical Insecticide Corporation, which made pesticides and defoliants like those used by the military in the Vietnam War, including Agent Orange, contaminated soil and groundwater with chemicals until 1972, when the company went bankrupt.

The E.P.A. stepped in and for 11 years has been working with community and environmental groups to have the site cleaned up by contractors. The agency spent $8 million for initial remedial work but eventually determined that the best response would be to cart away 150,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil at a cost of $40 million. In February, agency officials told the local groups that removal would begin in November.

The new report says that no money will be available for the project.

Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, an environmental group formed to monitor the cleanup, said that the environmental agency was under a binding agreement with the community to pay for the cleanup. If the Superfund does not allocate money, he said, the government's general funds will have to do so.

"They are required by law to do the remedy even if they don't have the money," Mr. Spiegel said. "Someone will have to pay, and the Bush administration wants the American people to do it."

It would take new Congressional action to spend federal funds other than Superfund reserves for cleanup.

Because the owner of Chemical Insecticide, Arnold Livingston, went bankrupt and then out of business, the cleanup money was supposed to come from the Superfund trust fund.

The fund was set up in 1980 with a special tax on chemical and oil companies to clean up so-called orphan sites, or those where the polluter could not be identified or would not pay, as well as for recalcitrant companies and emergency action.

But the trust fund is running out of money. Congress let the corporate taxes expire in 1995. Without them, the fund has dwindled from a high of $3.8 billion in 1996 to a projected $28 million next year. President Bush's budget made clear that he did not intend to reauthorize the tax.

The orphan sites, whose cleanup may now shift from the trust fund to general taxpayers, account for about 30 percent of the 1,551 sites on the Environmental Protection Agency's national priority list of toxic sites in pressing need of remediation. The total budget for the Superfund is $1.27 billion, which covers investigations, enforcement, litigation and engineering studies as well as cleanup.

Mr. Spiegel said of residents near the sites, "These people have no idea that all the time and energy they put into getting their sites listed and cleaned up has now been discarded because there is no money." He said that the administration was reluctant to release the information on the specific sites because "they know there will be some serious problems with their voters because they will be called to task on this."

Scott Stoermer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, said that shifting cleanup costs from industry to taxpayers was already a potent political issue in certain Congressional districts and was likely to become more so in the current atmosphere of corporate scandals.

"This is all about government letting corporations get away with things that hurt average Americans and leave taxpayers to foot the bill," Mr. Stoermer. "It's not just about cleaning up toxic waste, it's about fairness and which side are you on."