50 polluted sites chosen for stimulus money

US Stimulus Hazardous
Pilcher, Okla., is a Superfund site that will get federal stimulus funding and its main street includes this warning about using untreated water. The town once had a lead mine.Brandi Simons / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fifty of the country's most polluted and hazardous waste sites were singled out Wednesday to receive a share of federal stimulus money to continue cleanup operations.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced that $528 million in recently approved economic stimulus funding would be used to help clean up the sites in 28 states.

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.

And at New Bedford Harbor, Mass., where the announcement was made by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, 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.

Jackson talked about the timeline for the project, which was originally thought to take 38 years to complete. "Thirty-eight years is not acceptable to the Obama administration," she said.

Participating by telephone was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, who has been away from Congress while he is 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."

The funding announced by Jackson is aimed at creating jobs for cleanup 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 program has suffered budget shortfalls, with money for the dwindling cleanup 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 cleanup 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 cleanup 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."