TCS Daily


States Clean Up Hazardous Waste While Federal Superfund Dithers

By Lynn Scarlett - February 5, 2001 12:00 AM

During his campaign for the presidency, then Gov. George W. Bush's first environmental speech took place at an industrial site in Pennsylvania. The former hazardous waste site had been cleaned up, but not with leadership from Washington, and not by government officials wielding an enforcement hammer. It was cleaned up as part of a state voluntary effort - Pennsylvania's Land Recycling Program.

That program exemplifies a new environmentalism of incentives and problem solving that stands in stark contrast to the decades-old federal Superfund program.

An estimated 500,000 hazardous waste sites befoul America's landscapes, mostly in urban, often poor areas. Around 1,300 sites fall into the nation's so-called "National Priority List" of hazardous sites under the federal Superfund program, which was created 20 years ago to clean them up.

But from its inception, Superfund operated more with a "gotcha" thrust of strict liability standards than a problem-solving focus. Federal regulators have spent as much of their time trying to pin blame for the site's contamination (sometimes chasing after small mom & pop businesses that disposed of waste, often legally, in what later became hazardous waste sites) as cleaning up sites. And in cleaning up sites, the feds often got bogged down in prescriptive details. This micromanagement led to interminable delays, during which some sites, for which liabilities were high and clean-up costs under federal direction were steep, fell into municipal or state hands as industrial owners abandoned them.

In short, Superfund slowed rather than accelerated clean up of these hazardous waste sites. By the mid-1990s, the federal government had spent $15 billion on just 180 Superfund sites. Private firms matched that amount, bringing the total cost to $30 billion to clean just 13 percent of all Superfund designated sites. Paul Portney and Katherine Probst of the nonpartisan Washington think tank, Resources for the Future, estimate another $40 billion may be required to clean up other sites on the Superfund priority list.

Environmental activists rightly point out that cost should not be the sole criterion with which to assess Superfund. After all, the goal is to clean up sites that are fouling both land and water and to reduce health risks.

But it is precisely this goal, and not that of reducing costs, that is driving states like Pennsylvania to launch their own hazardous site clean ups.

The Pennsylvania program was launched in 1995. It established clean-up procedures much simpler than those available under the federal Superfund program. It granted liability releases to owners that cleaned up sites to agreed-upon standards. It offered funding assistance so private developers would see some value in turning old abandoned sites back into productive use. Under these streamlined rules, 300 sites had initiated clean ups by 1998; more than 100 had been completed. And most of the clean-up dollars came from private sources, not taxpayers.

Pennsylvania authorities were not alone in coming to the conclusion that the old environmentalism simply was not working. After a decade of frustration, 32 other states also began taking matters into their own hands with voluntary clean-up programs for brownfield sites.

Illinois commenced its brownfields' clean-up program in 1993. Under the program, the state has tiered levels of clean up, with clean-up standards linked to how the property will be used after remediation. All clean-up levels ensure protection of public health. Within just a few years, more than 700 sites had been signed up for the program and some 225 clean ups had been completed by 1997 - more than were fully cleaned up under Superfund over 15 years.

So what's the rub? Why have leaders of the old environmentalism that helped bring us many of the nation's environmental statutes not quickly embraced these efforts?

There's an old warning: Don't let the perfect stand in the way of the good. That, though, what the Superfund program did . It encouraged states to establish programs that attempted to force landowners to clean up property to "background" or pristine levels, without regard to its justification in terms of human health. Pennsylvania's Secretary of Environment Jim Seif, who helped orchestrate the Pennsylvania program, calls this the "purity and Garden of Eden" approach. It may once have made for good political posturing, but it was bad clean-up policy, producing, Seif notes, almost no clean ups.

New environmentalists like Seif push for environmental performance standards that ensure protection of human health and eco-systems. New environmentalists like Seif and his other state colleagues also want states to have more leeway to "race to the top" in environmental performance. The states, says Robbie Roberts of Environmental Council of States, have detailed "local knowledge" of which problems are worst and what programs work. And finally new environmentalists like Seif see a big role for carrots -- not to replace the punitive stick, but to play a more prominent role in inspiring private stewardship.

All of this rubs against old environmentalist credos. Old environmentalists want a "bright line" standard that often stops at nothing short of "pristine." They worry that without a federal "boss," states will simply "race to the bottom" by weakening regulations to attract businesses. And many of them have absorbed a "whodunnit" focus, and see punishment as central to accountability and behavior change.

This opposition will continue to surface as the new president pushes for more voluntary actions to support state initiatives. After Bush's speech in Pennsylvania, for example, the Sierra Club, vigorously attacked his proposed plan to help states in their brownfield clean-up efforts. The plan, they said, would "weaken the federal Superfund law for cleaning up abandoned toxic waste sites."

But such old arguments confront a new reality. In the past decade, many states actually took the bull by the horns and began pursuing the new environmentalism. The nation now has a track record to look to in comparing the old and the new. In hazardous site clean ups, the new is looking a lot better than the old -- not just in terms of cost but in terms of environmental performance.

With President Bush's favoring the Pennsylvania model, and Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, likewise eyeing state brownfield programs as ripe for federal endorsement, the first federal statutory gesture toward a new environmentalism of incentives appears in the offing.

For states and communities with the biggest stake in cleaning up hazardous waste, it couldn't come soon enough.

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