Fed Superfund Gets Billions To Clean Up Pollution — Doesn’t Actually Do Much At All

Ethan Barton | Managing Editor

More than 1,300 of America’s most polluted sites remain contaminated despite billions of dollars spent in the 35 years since the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund program began.

The program – signed into law by former President Jimmy Carter in December 1980 – gave the EPA funding and power to clean the nation’s most polluted areas. Congress has appropriated around $1.1 billion each year for Superfund since 2013, though the program is primarily funded by the parties that polluted each site.

More than 1,700 locations have been made Superfund sites since the program began, according to the EPA. But only 391 sites, or less than one quarter, have been cleaned in 35 years, and many of those areas were contaminated before the Superfund law was enacted.

Of the more than 1,300 sites that are still polluted, according to EPA, 279 were on the Superfund’s National Priorities List from the time it was established in 1980 until at least 2013, according to a Daily Caller News Foundation analysis of 13,874 proposed, current, and cleaned sites.

Slow cleanup times isn’t news to the EPA. Only 17 percent of the then-1,289 sites had been cleaned, The New York Times wrote in a 1994 editorial – 14 years after Superfund began.

“It is hard to think of a government program with a wider gulf between ambitions and results than superfund,” the Times wrote. “Superfund has failed on nearly every count.” Only 174 more sites were cleaned 22 years after the Times editorial.

The EPA has since created new metrics to evaluate Superfund’s progress.

“Because it takes many years for a site to achieve final cleanup levels, the agency believes construction completion is an important site progress milestone,” an EPA spokeswoman who requested anonymity told TheDCNF. “At sites that are construction-complete, physical construction of all cleanup actions are complete, all immediate threats have been addressed and all long-term threats are under control.”

Construction has been completed at nearly 1,200 superfund sits as of April 14, 2016, according to the spokeswoman. Additionally, 752 sites are ready for new use where “there are no unacceptable risks,” she said.

She did not say if those figures include the 391 cleaned sites. The number of construction completions have also spiraled downward since 2000, with only 13 in 2015, according to the EPA.

The EPA pointed to a December 2014 National Geographic article that touted how the danger and urgency of Superfund sites have subsided, and noted that the program has been relegated by climate change. The article also pointed out one cleaned site that is now a wildlife refuge.

Dangerous substances still threaten humans at 110 sites, and the EPA doesn’t know if Americans are exposed at another 219, according to the agency. Similarly, toxic waste at 114 sites wasn’t controlled in 2007, and the EPA lacked data to rule on another 181, the Center for Public Integrity reported.

The EPA has developed a wider range of more efficient tools to clean Superfund sites, the EPA spokeswoman claimed.

Many sites sit untouched for years or even decades after being added to the Superfund list, and numerous studies, negotiations and litigation often slows the process, TheDCNF previously reported.

The EPA, for example, doesn’t have an estimate for how long it will take to clean the Gold King Mine – the recently proposed Superfund site where the agency polluted drinking water with 880,000 pounds of dangerous metals –  but data suggests it could take years or even decades, TheDCNF previously reported.

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