As a toddler, Elam Jacob used to cling to one of the front windows in his house to watch his father, Cory, leave for work. At the end of the day, Elam would climb back onto the sill to await his father's return, giggling as Dad came up the steps.
Unbeknown to his parents, Elam was inhaling lead-laced dust blowing in from outside, the legacy of a defunct smelter dating to 1871 and a handful of smaller industrial operations in town. After the sunny, blond 13-month-old, who had learned eight words, lost the ability to talk in 2001 and became hyperactive, his mother, Heidi, found a description of lead poisoning on the Internet and realized it matched Elam's symptoms. A blood test revealed he had lead levels of four times the safety threshold identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"He's permanently damaged. There's no reversal," said Heidi Jacob, 30, a mother of four who began crying as she recalled the discovery. "It's totally preventable. You know where it comes from, and nobody told us about it."
Elam — who at age 4 speaks mainly gibberish and jumps around incessantly — is one of more than 2,600 children with high lead levels in East Omaha, a largely poor inner-city neighborhood that ranks as one of the most dangerous toxic waste sites in the nation. The area was recently added to the Superfund federal waste-cleanup program and the bankrupt trust fund that was supposed to pay for it.
The cleanup effort here, however, is receiving only a fraction of the funding it needs, and the project could easily take a dozen years.
'We've got a growing problem'
It is not the only one. Nationwide, Superfund is grappling with a growing number of costlier and more complex sites and a chronic reluctance by Congress to raise its budget.
Facing a record budget shortfall of about $250 million and about 475 uncompleted sites, the nearly 25-year-old program aimed at protecting Americans from industrial contamination is in crisis. Program managers are scaling back their spending requests and slowing cleanups. Republicans and Democrats agree that the program needs more money, but its budget has been stagnant for a decade and its original industry-funded multibillion-dollar trust fund is broke.
"We've got a growing problem," said Thomas P. Dunne, who oversees Superfund cleanups at the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. Although the program has completed work on 883 nongovernmental sites since it began, 34 Superfund projects ready or almost ready for cleanup this year received no funding, Dunne said.
In the region overseeing the Omaha Lead Site, officials instructed managers to "reduce the scope, phase or delay planned activities where possible," according to the EPA's inspector general. Regional authorities spent less than half the money they estimated Omaha needed in 2003 just to test homes for contamination.
'A program of last resort'
Superfund is no longer dogged by the kind of endless litigation that defined its early years — one hearing, in the mid-1980s, was held in the Pittsburgh Convention Center to accommodate the number of lawyers involved. The program is by most accounts more efficient than it was a decade ago, but many politicians are reluctant to embrace it because it remains a daunting problem that affects mostly Americans with little political clout.
It is, in the words of EPA consultant Philip Angell, a "program of last resort" for communities abandoned by the companies that once provided them with jobs but fouled their surroundings in the process. Although at 70 percent of sites the companies responsible pay for cleaning up the contamination they created, the government has to cover the costs for the 30 percent at which companies have gone bankrupt or are resisting a settlement, according to the EPA.
Initially focused mostly on chemical and petroleum pollution, Superfund now must cope with a wide variety of situations, including piles of mining tailings in far northeastern Oklahoma and lead sediment at the bottom of Idaho's picturesque Lake Coeur D'Alene. At the Tar Creek site in Oklahoma, authorities are so concerned about the health risks of mining refuse that they just approved $5 million to relocate as many as 100 families with young children living near the site.
EPA has put 49 sites in the District, Maryland and Virginia on Superfund's national priority list, which refers to the nation's worst toxic waste areas.
Cleanups at "mega-sites," such as those at Coeur D'Alene and Tar Creek, will cost a total of $1.75 billion to complete over the next few decades, according to EPA officials, who note that nine out of 120 sites on the Superfund long-term list consumed 52 percent of this year's cleanup budget. One internal EPA chart estimates a cleanup backlog of $750 million within two years, though Barry N. Breen, Dunne's deputy, called this figure misleading.
"These sites that are coming on line don't present the same kinds of risks that defined the program in the beginning, both in terms of size and in terms of cost," Angell said.
Democrats and many environmentalists question that assessment, because sites such as Coeur D'Alene and Tar Creek have been on the program's National Priorities List since the 1980s. The bigger problem, they say, is that Republicans have declined to renew two corporate taxes that fed billions into the Superfund trust fund since 1980, and the program's spending power is shrinking. The Government Accountability Office calculated that the budget declined by 34 percent over the past decade, considering inflation.
The taxes — one on oil and chemical companies, the other a general environmental tax on corporations — expired in 1995. Bill Clinton pushed to reinstate them during his presidency, but Congress refused. Now that Republicans control both the legislative and executive branches, all sides say there is little chance the two levies — which could bring in $16 billion over the next decade — will be revived.
"It's such an outrage," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who plans to press for a tax next year on companies that make and sell toxins. "Cleaning up Superfund sites should be one of our highest national health priorities."
Bush administration officials say the president has pressed to increase Superfund's long-term cleanup budget of about $260 million, asking for an additional $150 million this year and last.
"There is little question in my mind if Congress chooses to allocate more dollars this year as a priority, it can be spent doing important cleanups," said EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt, who visited the Omaha lead site in October. "The problem is, our pocketbook does not stretch across all the places our heart responds to."
Tight federal budget
Congress, however, has shown little appetite for providing Superfund with more money. Lawmakers recently voted to give the program $1.257 billion, $8 million less than last year's budget. Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Superfund, said that the White House did not actively lobby for the extra $150 million Bush requested, and that appropriators could not devote more money in light of the tight budget. "We can only spend what we have," he said.
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who represents Omaha and was one of 15 House Republicans to vote last year for an unsuccessful amendment to add $114 million to Superfund, said his colleagues are not focused on toxic waste cleanups. "Just sitting around the Members' Dining Room, I just don't hear this issue coming up," he said.
In Omaha, people are angry, even though EPA authorities are cleaning up 10 contaminated yards a week at a cost of $13,000 to $16,000 per yard. As many as 87,000 residents — and 9,400 children under 7, who are most vulnerable to lead poisoning — live in the affected area, which stretches across 8,840 acres on the city's east side.
It is an area where the local grocery store advertises malt liquor for 89 cents a can, the children no longer play in their back yards and families cannot afford to move. The mining company that spewed much of the lead into Omaha's air, Asarco Inc., is responsible for sites that will cost $1 billion to clean up nationwide but will fund just a fraction of that amount. It agreed last year to pay the federal government $100 million for all the sites its facilities affected in exchange for a three-year moratorium on lawsuits.
This past year the Omaha site received $5.7 million from the government and $2 million from the Asarco settlement. Bob Feild, EPA's site project coordinator, said the agency is trying to save money by forcing contractors to compete and by experimenting with treating the soil with phosphates that minimize the effects of lead.
Lead not only causes severe developmental problems in children, said Bruce P. Lanphear, a pediatrics professor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, but has also been linked to spontaneous abortions, miscarriages and tooth decay.
Nebraska Republicans and Democrats continue to lobby for more money, and Feild said that the site remains a top EPA priority, but that he cannot predict whether the cleanup will take six years or a dozen. The total bill could be $215 million, and Feild is likely to receive just a fraction this year of the $26 million he first publicly estimated he needed.
"I guess if they want not to succeed, this is the way to go," said Adi M. Pour, health director in Douglas County, Neb.
Samantha Bradley, a feisty 8-year-old who confronted EPA chief Leavitt at a news conference last month, remains convinced the federal government is ignoring her.
"If the president or the mayor lived in this neighborhood, they'd probably get it cleaned up like that," she said, snapping her fingers.