Superfund, EPA Programs' Focus on Re-use of Contaminated Sites Increases Community Involvement

April 5, 2004
Marianne Horinko, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response

Administrators of the Superfund program, designed to clean up the nation's most environmentally contaminated sites, are encouraging productive re-use of sites, even as the program focuses on the worst remaining locations and relegates less-contaminated sites to other EPA programs, said Marianne Horinko, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response and one-time Acting Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Horinko gave the keynote address April 2 at the Conference on Revitalizing Land and Restoring Communities, a two-day event sponsored by the University of Virginia, its Center of Expertise for Superfund Site Recycling, and the EPA.

The Superfund law was designed in 1980 "to get at the very worst sites," she said, and has found success in doing so despite initial failures. Two weeks ago the EPA proposed deleting Love Canal from the National Priorities List. Love Canal helped inspire the Superfund legislation: over 21,000 tons of chemicals were dumped at the New York site from 1942-52, and toxic residue and fumes began seeping up through the ground by the 1960s, worsening in the 1970s until the area was evacuated by order of the federal government in 1978 and in a broader area in 1980.

"It became a symbol for the fear of chemicals that might be buried under our communities," she said. "Now we can say that the cleanup work is completed."

The Superfund program was designed to protect human health, find responsible parties, and clean up sites, she said. "It's fair to say that Superfund has been a resounding success," she said, pointing to a study conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration that reached the same conclusion. Superfund has cleaned 900 of the most contaminated sites in the nation and inspired other EPA programs such as the Brownfields program involving less contaminated sites. Brownfields was designed to involve communities, local government and other interests in working to re-use property complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. The program has cleaned 25,000 sites since its inception in 1995.

Although cleanup is valuable, Horinko noted, it's "not necessarily an end in itself." Brownfields cleanups, which are voluntary, are the results of partnerships that value re-using sites and making economic development part of the cleanup.

When re-use is part of the plan, there is more community involvement, she added, and more resources are brought to bear. The initiative to incorporate re-vitalization and re-use where possible and appropriate was a policy sea change for the EPA, she said, and the Agency has now extended that initiative to Superfund.

"Site re-use is an integral part of clean-up planning," she said, but protecting people is still the EPA's primary concern. The EPA now considers how to reduce uncertainty in the investment community and how the benefits to the community of land re-use can be measured.

Horinko said a conference on land re-use just 10 years go might have been unthinkable. "American people were still too frightened by sites like Love Canal and too angry [at Superfund]."

Companies like Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and Einstein Bagels have invested in sites over land that once held underground oil tanks, and other companies and communities are also cleaning up sites for re-use.

Horinko also praised the people who work at the EPA and reflected on the many aspects of her job; in the three years since her current appointment, she's briefed congressmen on the anthrax clean-up in congressional offices, overseen the Columbia shuttle disaster and ricin clean-ups, and also dealt with post-September 11 air-quality issues and cleanup of apartments in New York City.

In a question and answer session, Horinko said there's a public misperception about the Superfund trust fund's publicized lack of cash. She called the trust fund an "accounting gimmick," noting that the trust fund balance has gone up and down frequently over the decades but that Congress appears willing to appropriate the same amount of money each year for the program. Last year about 87 percent of the cost of site cleanups came from parties responsible for the pollution; this amount averages about 75 percent each year.

"Where we can find responsible parties and tag them to the site, we force them to pay," she said.

A Superfund tax on petro-chemical companies expired in 1995, but if it were to be reinstated, it is unclear to whom the tax should apply, she explained. Superfund sites are now more often "megasites," with environmental problems resulting from mining, urban runoff, sewer overflow, or contaminated groundwater. "Do you tax those people?" she asked, or should we use general revenues?

Responding to a question about completed Brownfields site projects, Horinko said most return to use in a year or two, which is increasingly not the case with Superfund sites.

"Superfund is becoming the tool of last resort," she said, as the program now tackles problems in which whole watersheds are contaminated. "Cleaning up those sites is going to be an occupation for my children-and they're 4- and 6-years-old."

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