New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
December 5, 2004


By Michael Janofsky

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 -- The head of the nation's Superfund program says
that fundamental changes in the program may be necessary to continue
cleanups as more contaminated sites demand attention and federal
resources remain flat.

Thomas P. Dunne, an assistant administrator of the Environmental
Protection Agency who oversees the Superfund, said pressures on the
program's annual cleanup budget of $450 million and the growing list
of sites to be restored were strangling the program's ability to
operate effectively. A new report by the agency predicted that as many
as 355,000 hazardous waste sites could require cleanup over the next
three decades, at a cost of up to $250 billion.

As a result, Mr. Dunne said the time had come for "a frank, open and
nonpartisan discussion" to balance public expectations for action and
budgetary realities that make timely responses increasingly less

"We will continue to operate within the constraints of what we've
got," Mr. Dunne said Friday in an interview. "We intend to be open and
transparent. But these are some things people can chew on, and we'll
see what happens."

The agency's budget for Superfund cleanups has not changed in the last
few years. Since 1995, when Congress did not renew a special tax on
polluters, the cleanup money has come entirely from taxpayers.

President Bush sought no increase in the fund three years ago, and
Congress has rebuffed his requests to increase the budget by $150
million in each of the last two years. Recent program reviews by the
environmental agency's inspector general have cited the need for
hundreds of millions of dollars more to meet a growing backlog of

In that context, Mr. Dunne, in a speech on Thursday, proposed three
ways to ease the pressure on the budget and, perhaps, to lower
expectations of community groups eager to eliminate contaminated sites
in their neighborhoods.

One, Mr. Dunne said, is to seek private businesses that may have an
economic interest in a restored site to help defray cleanup costs.

Another would be to create a management system for the program in
which large sites that ate up more than half the Superfund budget were
separated from smaller sites. The change, he said, would give
communities a more realistic picture of how much help they could
expect and when.

A third idea he proposed was halting the listing of more contaminated
sites until current work is completed.

"I'm not necessarily advocating for these ideas," Mr. Dunne said in an
interview. "I want to get them on the table for discussion and

It is unclear, however, whether Congress may be immediately willing to
contemplate reorganizing the Superfund program.

Senator James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who is chairman of the
Environment and Public Works Committee, "looks forward to looking at
these proposals in the future," said his spokesman, Will Hart, who
added: "They're interesting ideas, especially the first one. Senator
Inhofe has definitely said he would welcome market-based approaches to
solving problems."

But critics of the program say the real problem facing the Superfund
program is an apparent lack of political will among Republicans in the
White House and Congress to push for increasing its budget.

"These ideas are not a solution, but a diversion from the real
problem, which is the failure of the administration and the
Republican-controlled Congress to properly fund Superfund site
cleanups," said Representative John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat
who is the ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce,
which has jurisdiction over the Superfund.

Senator James M. Jeffords, a Vermont independent who is the ranking
member of Mr. Inhofe's committee, also dismissed Mr. Dunne's ideas,
saying, "We should be working to protect our environment and public
health by cleaning up more sites, faster, rather than shirking our

Mr. Dunne said that he was not wedded to any of his proposed changes.
Nor, he said, is he asking for a bigger Superfund budget.He
emphasized, however, that the program could accomplish only so much
without a budget increase. He conceded this was unlikely, even as the
number of sites needing cleanup is increasing by an average of 28

On any day, over 500 cleanup projects are under way and hundreds await
work, but reflecting frustrations faced by communities on the waiting
list, 9 of the biggest projects, known as megasites, account for 52
percent of the budget.

In the speech on Thursday at a Superfund seminar in Charlottesville,
Va., Mr. Dunne said: "Because of these painful realities, we need to
undertake a broader, more strategic discussion of our future options.
We need fresh thinking about how we manage the program."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company