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West Lake cleanup hurt by weakening Superfund program, group says

West Lake cleanup hurt by weakening Superfund program, group says

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Bridgeton Landfill

A chainlink fence separates an area of the radioactive waste contaminated West Lake Landfill from the Bridgeton Landfill  in Bridgeton on Friday, Aug. 28, 2015. Photo by Huy Mach, hmach@post-dispatch.com

A longtime environmental activist is calling for renewed attention to the country’s 35-year-old toxic cleanup program, saying its neglect has caused years of inaction at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton.

Lois Gibbs, a community activist who in the ’70s battled pollution in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y., says the Environmental Protection Agency has ignored its Superfund program. The toxic contamination in Love Canal led to the evacuation of hundreds of families and helped spur passage of the Superfund law.

The group Gibbs founded, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, also put blame on Congress, releasing a report Tuesday that detailed a steady decrease in funding for the country’s toxic waste remediation program. Lack of funding hurts EPA’s ability to clean up contaminated sites because the agency is dependent on the polluters to write the checks for cleanup.

Gibbs pointed to the West Lake Landfill, where nuclear waste was dumped in the 1970s, as an example of the program’s weakness. The EPA has had the site on its National Priorities List since 1990, but cleanup has yet to begin.

Gibbs along with four local religious and educational leaders sat on a panel Tuesday night in Maryland Heights and heard stories from 18 residents about the health and economic effects of living or working near the landfill.

“The EPA Superfund program has failed this community and they have failed our children,” said Dawn Chapman, a founder of West Lake community group JustMoms STL, which sponsored the event.

Gibbs said she will give the residents’ testimonies and the panel’s recommendations, including relocation of families living within one mile of the landfill, to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in January.

When the Superfund law was first passed in 1980, taxes were levied on petroleum and chemical companies, along with an environmental tax on corporations, to create a fund that would pay to clean up the country’s most contaminated sites. Those taxes lapsed in 1995 and have never been reinstated. The cleanup fund’s balance has dwindled to nothing, leaving the EPA to rely on annual appropriations and liable companies, if they can be found, to pay for cleanups.

A September Government Accountability Office report found that EPA has relied on annual appropriations since Congress allowed the environmental tax to lapse in 1995. In constant dollars, those appropriations have fallen from $2 billion in 1999 to $1.1 billion in 2013. Annual funding for cleanups fell from $700 million to $400 million in constant dollars during that time period.

Gibbs said if the agency had money in the Superfund, it could threaten to do its own cleanup at West Lake and then sue to recover cleanup costs from the potentially liable parties: the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear power plant and utility operator Exelon and landfill owner Republic Services.

“Now that there’s no money in Superfund, Republic Services has control of the waste site here because EPA can’t walk in and do something else,” Gibbs said during a media phone briefing Tuesday. “EPA has no real negotiating power today.”

Gibbs said that the West Lake cleanup should be transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers, which she said is “the most qualified government agency to provide a safe and effective solution.”

Missouri’s congressional leaders have introduced federal legislation that would make the switch from EPA to the Army Corps.

More agency-funded cleanups could be started and completed if Congress appropriated more money to the program, a spokeswoman from EPA headquarters said in a statement. The EPA also signaled support for restoring the lapsed Superfund fees.

"Reinstating the lapsed Superfund fees for the Trust Fund would provide a stable, dedicated source of revenue and restore the historic nexus that parties who benefit from the manufacture or sale of substances that commonly contaminate hazardous waste sites should bear the cost of cleaning up these sites when viable potentially responsible parties cannot be identified," the agency wrote in an email. 

Editor's note: This story was updated Dec. 9 with comments from the EPA. 

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