Toxic waste cleanup not cut-and-dry effort

There is no way to completely undo severe toxic contamination once it has happened.

Recently the Environmental Protection Agency proposed removing from its Superfund list the flagship toxic waste area in Niagara Falls, N.Y., known as Love Canal. The EPA created Superfund, the federal program to clean up uncontrolled hazardous waste sites around the country, partly in response to the severe contamination at Love Canal. While delisting the site might signify a big step forward for the program, it is premature to declare a victory, and the controversy is twofold.

Toxic waste cleanup is not a black and white undertaking. Declaring a site “clean” simply means it is much safer than it was – there is no way to completely undo severe toxic contamination once it has happened. As in Love Canal’s case, the pollution can be contained, controlled and to some extent treated – but the area will never return to its original state, despite $400 million put toward its cleanup. Superfund’s goal is to eliminate human health risks, and the EPA believes that goal has been reached. While there are no hard-and-fast standards to define “clean,” reduced risk is clear.

Superfund also aims to lay the financial burden for cleaning up contaminated sites on the responsible parties – if identifiable. Historically, funds from corporate taxes paid for “orphaned” sites. But those taxes expired and the U.S. Senate recently rejected reinstating them, leaving Superfund without the money it needs to pursue some of its sites. This can lay the burden on the new property owners not responsible for existing contamination.

Opponents of the delisting expect a perfect cleanup that is neither practically nor fiscally possible. Today’s residents of Love Canal – renamed Black Creek Village – feel safe and trust that regular testing for contaminant leakage will keep them that way. This is Superfund’s goal.

But the Bush administration is not doing enough to push funding for environmental cleanup, which makes future success stories more unlikely – as unlikely as Bush pushing for corporate taxes. Eventually the EPA will have to settle for fewer and less thorough cleanups – a prospect not at all appealing to those whose lives were affected – in some cases, by the loss of family members to rare cancers – by toxic waste.