EPA selects 50 polluted sites for stimulus money

April 15, 2009 5:42:51 PM PDT
For decades, the New Bedford Harbor was a dumping ground for industrial metals and other contaminants. But now that harbor and 49 other polluted and hazardous waste sites are a step closer to a major cleanup. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson on Wednesday singled out 50 sites, in 28 states, that will share $582 million in newly approved federal stimulus money to continue cleanup operations.

"The EPA has an answer for these challenging economic times," Jackson said at the harbor. "We have moved beyond the false choice between a green economy and a green environment."

The sites were contaminated years ago by mining waste, lead smelters, landfills, and other sources of chemicals but the companies responsible are no longer around to pay for their cleanup.

At half the sites, cleanups were either stalled last year or were expected to face delays this year because the EPA was running short of funds.

The money announced Wednesday will pay to excavate contaminated soil from hundreds of residential lawns in Evansville, Ind., Minneapolis, Minn., Madison County, Mo. and Omaha, Neb.

Up to $25 million will connect 180 houses in southeastern North Dakota to public drinking water. Their wells were tainted with arsenic from bait applied to control grasshoppers in the '30s and '40s. The people who live there have been supplied with bottled water since their wells were contaminated.

And at New Bedford Harbor, three times more mud will be dredged from the bottom of the harbor over the next two years than would have occurred without the money.

New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang said he planned to swim in the Acushnet River this summer. But Jackson said she did not know how much the extra money would shorten the amount of time it would take to make water clean enough for swimming, fishing and boating.

Participating by telephone was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, who has cut back on public activities while being treated for brain cancer. He said the effort to clean up the New Bedford site and freeing the community of pollution has been "an uphill battle all the way."

Community activists praised Jackson for focusing on the cleanup, but some questioned oversight of the stimulus funding, the supposedly reduced clean-up timeline and whether jobs would really be created for minorities who need work in the city.

"We want to know, how are we going to be able to monitor this," said John "Buddy" Andrade, executive director of the Old Bedford Village Community Development Corporation.

Officials do not know how many new jobs the funding would generate at the water dredging facility, but say about 100 ancillary jobs could be created in surrounding neighborhoods. Half of those are expected to go to residents of the area.

The funding announced by Jackson is aimed at creating jobs for clean-up contractors, soil excavation companies, hazardous waste disposal facilities and labs that test samples to detect contamination.

Beyond the jobs, the money will supply - at least temporarily - much needed cash to a program that has struggled to find money to pay for cleanups. Since 2000, the Superfund program has suffered budget shortfalls, with money for the dwindling clean-up fund declining each year.

Congress in 1995 refused to renew the excise tax on hazardous chemicals and petroleum products that was supposed to pay for the majority of the Superfund clean-up costs. Today the fund has declined to $137 million, while costs of cleanup annually have exceeded the amount Congress has been willing to appropriate.

President Barack Obama in February called for injecting $1 billion into the Superfund program by reinstating the tax beginning in 2011, after the nation emerges from its current economic problems.

The result has been fewer Superfund sites being cleaned up. Last year, the EPA did not have enough money to pay for clean-up projects at 10 sites. This year, without the stimulus money, the agency expected work at 15 sites to go unfunded.

The effect has been that many sites languish on the Superfund rolls. Since 1980, EPA has identified 1,596 hazardous waste sites. Today, there are still 1,264.

"They were just doing the minimum they could do with the money they had," said Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, whose experience living atop the Love Canal hazardous waste site outside Niagara Falls, N.Y., led to the passage of the law that created Superfund.

"The stimulus money is going to only put a Band-Aid on these really problematic sites, and it does not deal with the core problem that Superfund doesn't have any money," said Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. "It shouldn't be the American taxpayers that have to pay for it."

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Associated Press writer Dina Cappiello contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

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On the Net:

EPA Superfund site: www.epa.gov/superfund

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