WASHINGTON – For 18 years, St. Mary’s County officials have tried to get help cleaning up toxic chemicals on the grounds of a former wood treatment company near Hollywood.
If a Superfund reform bill passed last week by a House subcommittee becomes law, those efforts may have been wasted.
The bill, and a corresponding budget measure, could prevent cleanups at two Maryland sites and slow down efforts at six others, the Environmental Protection Agency reported.
The funding bill before the House would cut toxic waste cleanup money by 34 percent. As a result, the EPA would not have the funds to start cleanups at locations where efforts are not underway, such as in Hollywood, said Seth Bruckner, attorney advisor for EPA’s Office of Emergency Response.
The reform bill would allow review Superfund sites to determine whether cleanup efforts should be modified. Under the proposal, the emphasis on selecting remedies would switch from cleanup to limiting people’s exposure to the chemicals and to cost-effectiveness, Bruckner said.
Critics say the bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, would favor building fences around contaminated sites and stationing watch dogs around them over actual cleanups.
“We are creating thousands of little Superfund museums across the nation,” Bruckner said.
Jane Nishida, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, wrote in letters to the state’s congressional delegation that the Oxley bill may “compromise the ability and authority of the department to protect Maryland’s public health and the environment.”
Oxley contends that his bill would make cleanups faster and more efficient. He also said the reform bill “eliminates liability for thousands of small businesses caught in Superfund’s unfair liability web.”
Under the proposal, companies would no longer have to pay for cleanups of municipal landfills and other sites if they dumped their chemicals legally.
Representatives of the Chemical Manufacturers Association said the bill is a step in the right direction.
“Under the current law you have to clean up every last molecule of contamination, regardless of the risk to the community,” said Paul Hirsh, a spokesman for the organization. He said the reform bill’s risk assessment provisions are more realistic.
The EPA determined the funding proposal could prevent cleanups in Maryland at Southern Maryland Wood Treating in St. Mary’s County and Bush Valley Landfill in Harford County.
Maryland sites where ongoing cleanups could be slowed by the reform measure are the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Edgewood and Michaelsville; Kane & Lombard Street Drums in Baltimore; Limestone Road in Cumberland; Sand, Gravel & Stone in Elkton; and Woodlawn County Landfill in Cecil County, the EPA said.
In St. Mary’s, EPA had begun to remove the most contaminated soils and constructed a wall to prevent harmful chemicals such as dioxin from spreading through the groundwater.
But efforts were suspended in 1992 when it became apparent to the agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment that the costs of the proposed soil treatment were too high, officials said. Now, EPA is studying alternative solutions for the site.
The St. Mary’s County Council has scheduled a phone conference to discuss the state of the cleanup in December, county spokeswoman Judy Pedersen said. “People are anxious to get this behind them,” she said. “We will not be satisfied with anything less than a clean site.”
Harford County faces problems at three different sites.
Bush Valley Landfill may not receive cleanup funds, the EPA said. A wide variety of chemicals that can cause cancer, liver problems and kidney failure have been found there.
The two Aberdeen Proving Ground sites projected to be reviewed are among the nation’s most expensive military cleanup sites. A recent study by the San Francisco Urban Institute determined efforts there will cost close to $2 billion. So far, $230 million have been spent.
Congress created the Superfund program in 1980 to pay for the cleanup of the nation’s most contaminated industrial and military sites. Since then, work has been completed at 291 sites, while 1,289 sites are still on the Superfund list.
EPA requested $1.6 billion for its 1996 Superfund budget. The Republicans cut the Superfund request to $1 billion. And the Oxley bill would require EPA to spend much of this money to reimburse companies for cleanup costs.
Maryland’s state government does not have plans to offset potential losses in Superfund money and to improve the proposed cleanup programs, Department of the Environment officials said.
The Oxley bill will be discussed in the House Commerce Committee in coming weeks, a staffer said. A corresponding Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, is pending before a subcommittee. – 30 –