Big guns in industry and government are aiming to kill the 12-year-old
Superfund program, the multi-billion-dollar federal effort to clean up
old chemical dumps. NEWSWEEK fired the opening salvo in the summer of
1989, calling Superfund sites "boring"--a code word for NOT WORTH THE
MONEY WE'RE SPENDING TO PROTECT NEARBY RESIDENTS. EPA [U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency] appears to be helping Superfund
critics by running a corrupt, wasteful, inefficient and ineffective
program, all the while claiming great success. October 17, 1989, EPA
issued a press release with the headline, "EPA Achieves Superfund
Milestones." The press release announced that cleanups had begun at 254
sites. "The Superfund program is making significant progress," EPA
chief William Reilly said. "These accomplishments are results-oriented.
They reflect my management initiatives, which make cleaning up sites...
our highest Superfund priority."
Two years later, the NEW YORK TIMES reported at length on Superfund
(June 16, 1991, Section 3, pgs. 1, 6), revealing that only 60 Superfund
sites had been cleaned up despite expenditures and commitments of $11.5
BILLION since 1981. (That's $191 million per cleanup.) The WASHINGTON
POST clarified the matter three days later (pgs. A1, A14), pointing out
that actual expenditures were only $7.5 BILLION and that really 64
sites had been cleaned up--so the actual cost per site was only $117
To be fair, these costs-per-cleanup are not accurate because money has
been spent conducting studies at many other sites. But in a sense, that
is the Superfund problem. A whole industry has been created to study
Superfund dumps, with little actual success cleaning anything up.
The TIMES said the official Superfund list in June, 1991, included 1126
sites but also revealed EPA's estimate of "other potentially hazardous
sites" included 32,645 sites. So, despite massive expenditures and
hundreds of fat, expensive studies, Superfund has accomplished little,
and compared to the size of the problem, it has accomplished almost
nothing. "Lawyers and consultants are the only ones cleaning up,"
quipped one critic.
Critics of Superfund in industry and government are now using these
sorry statistics to gather their forces for a major assault on the
Superfund program itself. But Congress hasn't yet shown much stomach
for a fight on this issue. In the dead of night and without public
discussion--Congress reauthorized Superfund for another five years in
late fall 1990, so no real debate will take place until 1993 or 1994,
when people begin to gear up for the next Superfund reauthorization,
which will be needed in 1995.
In the meantime, real people are living near real chemical dumps. Many
of them are frightened to death. Their property has lost its value
entirely, in the sense that no one in their right mind would buy it.
These victims are thus imprisoned in a toxic nightmare. Highly-paid
consultants in moon suits take soil samples, separated by only a chain-
link fence from play areas used by children whose parents are trapped
and powerless because they have lost the only thing of real value that
they ever owned--their home.
Is fear of chemical dumps justified? The National Research Council of
the National Academy of Sciences recently published an excellent book-
length study that tries to answer that question. The National
Academy recently issued a short essay by Anthony B. Miller, the project
leader of the study. We reprint it here verbatim. Dr. Miller is a
professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Biostatistics at
University of Toronto. --Peter Montague
ASSESSING THE THREAT OF TOXIC WASTE SITES
If you live in the United States, there's roughly a one-in-six chance
that your home is located within four miles of a chemical dump or other
potentially hazardous waste site. Given our unpleasant memories of Love
Canal and other incidents, it's reasonable to ask which of these more
than 31,000 sites truly pose a threat.
Unfortunately, more than a decade after Congress established the
Superfund program, we still cannot answer that question. A committee
that I chaired for the National Research Council reported recently that
the federal government has no comprehensive inventory of waste sites,
no program for discovering new sites, insufficient data for determining
safe exposure levels, and an inadequate system for identifying sites
that require immediate action to protect public health.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conducted preliminary
investigations of 27,000 of the reported sites. About 9,000 of these
have been studied more extensively, and 1,200 have been placed on the
National Priorities List for eventual cleanup. Yet the methods used to
assess the public health danger at these sites are questionable, and it
is far from clear how much nearby residents have benefitted.
Opinion polls show the public believes that hazardous wastes constitute
a serious threat, but many scientists and administrators in the field
disagree. Our committee, which included experts in toxicology, exposure
assessment and other fields, found the available evidence too skimpy to
confirm or refute either view.
More than 5 billion metric tons of hazardous waste is produced each
year in the United States. There's no question that substances toxic to
humans and several animal species abound in hazardous waste sites. It's
a big step, however, to say that, most, or many, or even a substantial
fraction of the sites pose a threat to nearby residents. Residential
proximity does not necessarily mean that exposures and health risks are
occurring, although the potential for exposure obviously is increased.
Epidemiologic studies of hazardous waste sites have complex technical
limitations. However, SUCH CONDITIONS AS BIRTH DEFECTS, SPONTANEOUS
ABORTIONS, CARDIAC ANOMALIES, FATIGUE, AND NEUROLOGIC IMPAIRMENT HAVE
BEEN TIED TO EXPOSURE AMONG NEARBY RESIDENTS. [Emphasis added.]
It is less clear whether exposure to the wastes can be blamed for
medical problems in which there is a long delay between exposure and
disease. However, SOME STUDIES HAVE DETECTED EXCESSES OF CANCER IN
RESIDENTS EXPOSED TO COMPOUNDS FOUND AT HAZARDOUS WASTE SITES.
As for which sites are a problem or how close people have to live to be
affected, much remains uncertain. Without clear answers, the only
prudent course is to err on the side of public safety, just as we do in
designing bridges or buildings. In evaluating the potential danger of a
dump, officials should apply a large margin of safety.
Everyone would benefit, however, by reducing the uncertainty about
hazardous wastes generally and about specific sites. Of the $4.2
billion [sic] spent annually on hazardous waste sites in the United
States, less than one percent has gone to study health risks.
The scientific basis for evaluating Superfund sites must be improved.
Expanded studies are needed--and soon. As toxic wastes disperse, more
people will be exposed and it will become increasingly difficult to
design studies that compare the health of exposed and unexposed
populations. One kind of research that is especially important is
identifying biologic markers that indicate whether someone has been
exposed to toxic chemicals.
More broadly, the federal government should establish an aggressive
program to discover hazardous waste sites. It needs to revamp its
methods for evaluating know sites for population exposures, health
effects and the need for cleanup measures. Washington also should
expand technical assistance to state hazardous waste programs and
increase support for university research in "environmental
After spending billions of dollars during the past decade to study and
manage hazardous waste sites, the American people are entitled to
firmer information. The only way to end the uncertainty over how much
the sites endanger the public is to perform the necessary studies. We
should strive to clear up this scientific mystery even as we clear up
the wastes themselves. With more than 40 million people living near the
sites, the public needs answers.
by Anthony B. Miller
 Gregg Easterbrook, "Cleaning Up [Our Mess]," NEWSWEEK, July 24,
1989, pg. 29."
 Anyone interested in chemical dumps MUST read this book, which
evaluates hundreds of health studies and puts them into perspective:
Anthony B. Miller, editor, ENVIRONMENTAL EPIDEMIOLOGY, VOLUME 1: PUBLIC
HEALTH AND HAZARDOUS WASTES. $29.95 plus $3.00 shipping, from: National
Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave., NW, P.O. Box 285, Washington, DC
20055. Telephone: (202) 334-2000.
Descriptor terms: national research council; epa; hazardous waste
sites; superfund; atsdr; remedial action; health; superfund; national
academy of sciences; epa; william reilly; superfund reauthorization;