The waiting game


Published: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 4:22 p.m.

Lois Gibbs was a housewife in Love Canal, N.Y., who became a political activist after she learned that her community was saturated with toxic wastes. She is known as the "Mother of Superfund" for her efforts helped spur creation of the landmark Superfund cleanup law in 1980.

These days, Gibbs is less than impressed with what Superfund has wrought.

Americans living near contamination used to think that being listed as a Superfund site was a positive thing, she told the Center for Public Integrity last year.

But now, she said, "They know if they get listed, it's a 10- or 20-year process to get a site cleaned up...It doesn't represent the positive image for communities that it once did."

Gainesville can relate to that. It's been a quarter of a century since the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site was designated. With the passage of those decades, GRU has grown increasingly concerned about the spread of contamination in the direction of the city's water wells. Nearby residents are worried about the health impacts of contaminated soil. The company responsible for cleanup, Beazer East, continues to blandly assure the community that there is no cause for concern.

And the Environmental Protection Agency continues to allow Gainesville to wonder and worry and speculate about when, if ever, cleanup will commence. And whether the method of cleanup selected will even be adequate to address the full scope of the contamination problem.

A quarter of a century. And Gainesville is still waiting.

Today, city and county commissioners will meet to be briefed on the status of the Superfund site. If the past is any indication, there will be few satisfying answers. Perhaps a cleanup proposals will be ready for consideration in a year or so. Perhaps not.

Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan is so fed up with the interminable delay that she is considering litigation against Beazer East. But it is just as likely that a lawsuit would simply further delay action.

The bigger tragedy is that Gainesville's frustration is shared by hundreds of other communities. Since its inception, only 319 Superfund sites have been cleaned up and delisted, while an estimated 1,243 remain active and more than 60 proposed sites still await listing.

Meanwhile, funding for Superfund has steadily declined under the watch of a Bush administration that seems determined to kill the program from sheer neglect. Even the money EPA collects from companies responsible for contamination has shrunk over the years.

"It's like having four sick kids at a table and you can only give one aspirin," Gibbs said last year. "You can't decide which one to give it to even though they all need assistance."

Commissioners and impacted neighbors are angry and frustrated, and rightly so. The promise behind the passage of the Superfund law, nearly three decades ago, has degenerated into a bureaucratic waiting game.

Gainesville wants the Cabot-Koppers site cleaned up, and the sooner the better. But inside the D.C. Beltway politics has turned the Superfund law into a cruel joke. And the joke, as usual, is on us.

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