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Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Mar 10, 2011 12:00 AM

Superfund. The word, at least for me, conjures up images an empty warehouse filled with metal drums leaking toxic sludge, dirt barely covering a hazardous waste sites, maybe some illegal dumping.

This Tuesday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added 10 sites to its "Superfund" priority cleanup list, and proposed 15 more for consideration. One of the newly-listed leaky drumsites is a rather infamous mine site (the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. Smelter and Refinery) near Great Falls, Mont.; a number of the proposed sites are at other Western mines.

This notches the Superfund site total up to 1,290. It's a daunting number, especially since the fund only has a 21 percent clean-up rate.

Here's a bit of background. The law that created Superfund -- the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (acronym CERCLA, pronounced cir-kla) -- was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. Congress's action to get companies to pay for the waste disasters they caused was spurred in part by the 1978 disaster of Love Canal, an upstate New York town built on top of a toxic waste dump whose residents and children started getting sick. (Aside -- the story was doggedly reported by investigative reporter Michael Brown, who conducted surveys of sick town members; the increased awareness helped garner support for the Superfund law.)

The law works in a pretty straightforward way -- sites have to be evaluated to estimate their contamination, and then put on a list for cleanup. That list is called the National Priorities List; that's what EPA just added 10 more sites to on Tuesday. Once a site is on the priorities list, the EPA can assign responsibility for cleanup to the individuals or corporations who caused the mess. But this can take a while.

The point of the law is to get whoever created the toxic site to pay for its cleanup. But sometimes, responsible parties can't be found, have gone out of business or bankrupt, or can't afford to pay to detox the site they polluted. This is where the Superfund part of the law comes in. The "super" fund was a special trust fund created by a tax on petroleum products. It's supposed to be used to do cleanups when the EPA can't get the companies to do the job.

But the Superfund stopped getting funded in 1995. President Clinton unsuccessfully tried to reinstate the tax on polluters that originally filled the fund's coffers, and the fund actually ran out of money in 2003. Since then the program has relied on appropriations whose amount and consistency shift according to the prevailing congressional winds.

The Center for Public Integrity critically investigated the Superfund program in 2007; one of their findings was that the EPA was unable to undertake cleanups because of their lack of funding.

In 2009, the agency drafted a rule that addresses this in part -- they want mining companies to provide evidence that they'll be able to stay in business not just when they're making money off a mine, but years after the fact, when a messy, expensive cleanup -- like the one in Libby, Mont. -- might be needed.

This new rule was spurred by a Sierra Club lawsuit alleging that the 63 hardrock mining sites on the National Priorities List have estimated cleanup costs of $7.8 billion, and $2.4 billion of those costs were going be footed by taxpayers.  Meanwhile, many more Western mining sites are being considered for Superfund listing, and the costs of cleaning up each site keep getting higher.

Notable opponents to the 2009 EPA rule include Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a mining fan, and -- shocker -- the National Mining Association. (Read Murkowki's letter to the EPA [PDF])

Bottom line: Superfund is struggling. This flurry of site additions makes it seem as though the EPA is trying to get the program back on track. But without better mechanisms to ensure that companies stay solvent enough to clean up their messes, or consistent funding for cleanups the EPA must pay for, progress on those 1,290 contaminated sites will continue to be as slow as a leaky toxic drip.

One in four Americans lives within three miles of a contaminated site posing serious health and environmental risks, according to the EPA. Find Superfund sites near you with the agency's many mapping tools.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.

Image of drum from Superfund site courtesy Flickr user G.A. Carafelli.

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