The Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program, which was created decades ago to clean up the nation's most hazardous toxic-waste sites, has been plagued with problems almost since its inception.
Originally intended to clean up and reduce the risk of toxic-waste sites such as factories, chemical dumps, abandoned mines, and military bases, its creators created it as a short-term project — $1.6 billion over five years, to clean up some 400 sites (by law, at least one per state and, not coincidentally, about one per congressional district).
Big And Ineffective
But it has grown into one of the nation's largest public-works projects: more than $30 billion spent on about 1,300 sites.
It has also been notoriously inefficient and ineffective. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized: "Superfund has too often become a sinecure for the bureaucracy and a cash cow for lawyers. EPA staff offices can wait years or decades to assess a Superfund site, figure out who's liable for what, consult with the community, decide on a remedy and assign the actual work."
The editorial goes on to describe egregious, but not atypical, examples of the program's ineffectiveness:
"Take the West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton, Missouri, which was used for quarrying in the 1930s and later as a landfill. In 1973, 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate from the Manhattan Project was dumped there, along with soil and waste. The EPA listed the 200-acre facility as a Superfund site in 1990.
"Yet it took 18 years for EPA to decide how to clean up West Lake, finally settling in 2008 on a "multi-layered engineered cover and a system of new monitoring wells." In 2009 the Obama EPA ditched that solution and re-opened the file. In 2010 an underground chemical reaction ignited a fire that is still smoldering.
"Another example is the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex in Idaho and Washington state that polluted the air and soil with heavy metals such as lead. The EPA put Bunker Hill on its original list of 406 Superfund sites in 1983, but it too remains an open case."
The builders of the pyramids worked faster than this.
The Wright Stuff?
There might finally be prospects of real reforms, with the nomination of Peter C. Wright, an environmental lawyer who is intimately familiar with the complexities of restoring polluted rivers and chemical dumps, to be the EPA assistant administrator who oversees the Superfund program.
Previously at Dow Chemical, at the company's headquarters in Midland, Michigan, he took part in one of the nation's most extensive cleanups.
Various studies have attempted to evaluate the impacts of Superfund's massive and costly cleanups, but the results are equivocal. Putting that another way, after the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars, no beneficial results have been demonstrable.
On the other hand, some Superfund projects have definitely caused harm. University of California Davis economics professor J. Paul Leigh has analyzed the occupational hazards of environmental cleanup projects and concluded that the risk of fatality to the average cleanup worker — a dump-truck driver involved in a collision, say, or a laborer run over by a bulldozer —is considerably larger than the cancer risks to individual residents that might result from exposure to untreated sites.
Misunderstanding The Nuances
The regulators seem not to fully understand the nuances of the job. Although it might seem counterintuitive, EPA's insistence on too extensive a cleanup is a significant problem with Superfund remediation.
In his excellent book, "Breaking the Vicious Circle," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (then a lower-court judge) addressed the EPA's counterproductive efforts to eliminate "the last 10 percent" of risk from a substance or activity, noting that it involves "high cost, devotion of considerable agency resources, large legal fees, and endless argument," with only limited, incremental benefit.
He quotes an EPA official as observing that "about 95% of the toxic material could be removed from (Superfund) waste sites in a few months, but years are spent trying to remove the last little bit."
In other words, regulators don't know when to stop, and, Professor Leigh's findings indicate that their zeal can actually create more safety hazards than it eliminates.
Administrator Reilly's Superfund Regrets
Even former EPA Administrator William Reilly admitted that Superfund's risk-assessment paradigms are flawed. In a 2016 speech while a visiting lecturer at Stanford University, he discussed the excessive costs of basing cleanups on exaggerated worst-case scenarios:
"The risks (Superfund) addresses are worst-case, hypothetical present and future risks to the maximum exposed individual, i.e., one who each day consumes two liters of water contaminated by hazardous waste. The program at one time aimed to achieve a risk range in its cleanups adequate to protect the child who regularly ate liters of dirt. . . And it formerly assumed that all sites, once cleaned up, would be used for residential development, even though many lie within industrial zones. Some of these assumptions have driven clean-up costs to stratospheric levels and, together with liabilities associated with Superfund sites, have resulted in inner-city sites suitable for redevelopment remaining derelict and unproductive."
The bottom line is that Superfund has not only been a dismal failure at cleanups but is a net killerof Americans. As the poster-child for what OMB Director Mick Mulvaney called federal programs that "sound good" but don't work, Superfund needs radical reform and diligent oversight.
Peter Wright might just be the right person for the job.
- Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.