Last Wednesday, state Superfund managers from across the nation quietly gathered at Red Lion's La Posada Inn in Scottsdale.
The purpose of the meeting: For EPA officials to explain the new plan to "revitalize" Superfund. The plan is called SACM, or the Superfund Accelerated Cleanup Model, and it may not be long before we see a similar "revitalization" of Arizona environmental policy.
Touted by the EPA as an effort to make Superfund more efficient and responsive to citizens' needs, the new plan is viewed by environmentalists as a technique to free polluters from the responsibility of cleanup costs, and to foist those costs on taxpayers.
"The EPA will allow quality of cleanups to go down at the same time it allows polluters' cleanup costs to go down. The EPA has subverted the intent of Superfund, which is to make polluters pay," says Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace in Washington, D.C. Hind and other environmentalists see the move as a last-ditch effort to protect industries as the current Bush Administration draws to a close.
"I don't think this goes against the spirit of Superfund," says Tim Fields, director of the EPA's Office of Superfund Revitalization, which is directing the transition into the new Superfund plan. "This is not a political ploy that came from the White House or anyone from the Bush Administration," he says, adding that low-level staff members came up with the idea a year ago as a way to more effectively manage Superfund sites.
The new Superfund plan was designed after a groundbreaking 1991 study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory concluded that with available technology it may take centuries to remove TCE and other solvents from aquifers that were previously targeted for 10- and 20-year cleanups.
Polluting industries are now faced with cleanup times that span centuries. They are also faced with mushrooming cleanup bills.
What the new Superfund plan does is this: It demands that funds and manpower be focused on cleanup of sites that are considered a "risk" to health.
Other sites not deemed a "risk," such as the Motorola 52nd Street site in Phoenix, will be placed on a "long-term" cleanup list. The Motorola site is not considered a health risk because the contaminated groundwater is not being consumed by human beings.
Will sites on the "long-term" list ever be cleaned up?
Or will polluting industries be relieved of their responsibilities for cleaning up their contamination?
Will the public care?
According to a March 1992 internal document written by Richard J. Guimond, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA, the "greatest benefit," of the new Superfund is that "the public would understand that the actions placed on this list would require many years, if not decades, to clean up . . . Removing the groundwater-restoration question to a separate part of the decision-making process would also allow for a more reasonable evaluation of the benefits and costs of such restoration." Fields, of the Superfund Revitalization Office tells New Times there is no financial mechanism in place to protect taxpayers from paying cleanup bills for groundwater that will eventually be needed for drinking in the event that the polluters go out of business. If the polluters go out of business, he says the Superfund--a fund of fees collected from chemical companies and oil industries as well as citizens--will pay the cleanup bill.
Under the new Superfund plan the method for determining what sites go on a long-term cleanup list is a "risk assessment," which is criticized by polluters and regulators alike for its inexact scientific method. "There is absolutely a lot of controversy over risk assessment," admits Edward Fox, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. "The thing that I find most interesting about risk assessment is when industry finds it works for them, they want a risk assessment. When environmentalists find it works for them, they want a risk assessment."
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Despite the problems with risk assessments, Fox says he "applauds" the EPA's new Superfund plan. He says state environmental policy is moving toward the national model of cleaning up contaminated sites according to "risk."
"Certainly it's part of my overall plan to streamline our state Superfund program so we get more bang for the buck," he says.
"People in Arizona should not allow the state to adopt this policy, they'll be left holding the bag," says Ross Bluestein, an attorney who is also the deputy director of the National Toxics Campaign, a national environmental advocacy group based in Boston. "Such a scheme should be vigorously opposed as a fraud and goes against the intent of the Superfund law, which is to locate polluters and hold them accountable in a timely way."
MOTOROLA: THE STORY SO FAR... v8-19-92