issue 157 | March 1986
S.O.S. for the E.P.A.
THE entrance to the EPA's Washington headquarters is carefully guarded. Once inside, the foyer is imposing. The agency's aims are displayed in cast bronze letters. Above these icons, the wood-panelled wall carries framed portraits of the presidential appointees who carry out the laws. There is William Ruckelshaus, first appointed by Richard Nixon. Next to him is Anne Gorsuch Burford, the Republican Party fund-raiser brought in by Reagan who did so much to destroy the EPA. She was finally chased out by Congress for mishandling the Superfund toxic waste program (see below). The President's revenge was to re-appoint Ruckelshaus, after he'd spent time with one of the country's big polluters, the Weyerhauser Corporation.
A visitor might find themselves conducted to one of the offices high on the south side of the building where they could view the muddy waters of the Potomac River - one of the EPA's more symbolic failures. As this source of Washington's drinking water flows down to the Chesapeake Bay it carries pollutants that are slowly killing the Bay.
Fishable and swimmable rivers and lakes were the first rallying cry of environmentalists in the United States. And the response by government and industry has been promising. No longer are rivers and streams convenient places for disposing waste. Outfall pipes with raw sewage have all but disappeared. Industry no longer pours so much chemical waste into rivers that they catch fire as happened to the Cayugua River in Ohio in the early 1970s.
The first, 'environmental wave' of regulations went smoothly enough. But the EPA is finding itself bogged down in the second, 'toxics wave'. The monumental task, slashed budgets and corruption all play a part.
The US currently uses some 66,000 chemicals, and the EPA estimates that about 60,000 of these are potentially hazardous to our health. Many are the direct result of our demand for a hygienic, high-tech lifestyle. They produce waste that is an environmental tar baby no modern society can shake off. It clings to us as paint sludge, as solvents that have dry-cleaned our clothes and de-greased the microchips for computers, as detergents that have cleaned up industrial machines. Mercury in a used watch battery becomes a hazardous waste. So is the butane residue in a disposable cigarette lighter. Household bleach, garden insecticides - even old TVs - all contain toxic, ignitable, corrosive or dangerously reactive chemicals.
Their disposal threatens the advances in material quality of life that we take for granted. The Office of Technology Assessment, a research arm of Congress, contends that 'at least 10,000 hazardous-waste sites pose a serious threat to public health' and should be given priority clean-up treatment.
No one really knows the size of the problem. The EPA regulated 264 metric tons of waste in 1981 - enough to fill the New Orleans Superdome 1,500 times over. But much waste remains unregulated - that is, no laws control its disposal. There has however been some progress. The 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act gave the EPA powers to regulate wastes for the first time, requiring them to be tracked and handled from creation to disposal at approved sites. This Act, progressive in itself, has an additional value since it increases the costs of disposal. This has prompted many companies to alter their operations to reduce waste or to re-use it.
But the problem of hazardous waste remained. The Love Canal incident in 1978, where long-buried chemicals oozed through the soil causing the evacuation of the community, was only one of a series of frightening cases. It is 'an environmental emergency', declared the Surgeon General in 1980.
And the response was typically American: not Superman but Superfund, a five-year $1.6 billion program set up by Congress in 1980 to clean up old waste sites. But Superfund has come to symbolise the clash of interests between the Reagan Administration and environmentalists with the EPA caught in the middle.
At the outset the message was clear: clean up the worst sites. The EPA picked out 850 dumps as needing priority clean-up. Five years on, according to the watchdog group, the National Campaign Against Toxic Hazards (NCATH), less than ten per cent have been tackled. At that pace, says NCATH 'millions of Americans will wait decades for the EPA to clean up their poisoned communities'.
All the errors and mismanagement are highlighted in the Butler Tunnel site in Pitsdon, Pennsylvania. Millions of gallons of toxic sludge were illegally dumped into abandoned coal-mine shafts. In 1979 heavy rains washed 100,000 gallons of the noxious substances into the Susquehanna River. The water supplies of communities downstream were contaminated and the EPA responded by cleaning up the spill. Investigators identified the 'motherlode' of chemicals in the tunnel but the clean-up was suddenly stopped. EPA claimed it had run out of money.
Later when the Superfund was available for use, the EPA was warned by NCATH activists that heavy rains would again wash the toxic sludges into the river. The warning was ignored until the area was hit by Hurricane Gloria during 1985. This time nearly 200,000 gallons spilled. Downstream water supplies were again contaminated and EPA conducted another expensive clean-up of the river. But six months later still no attempt has been made to clean up the tunnel.
The decision to stop the work has been traced to Rita Lavelle, one of the EPA officials brought in by Anne Bufford at the Reagan Administration's bidding. Lavelle was a California publicist who had worked for chemical company Aerojet General before joining EPA to direct the Superfund. She was later convicted of perjury for denying any involvement in the EPA's dealings with the notorious Stringfellow Acid Pits waste dump in California - a site where Aerojet General along with other companies had dumped tons of caustics, cyanides and heavy metals.
In the midst of this turmoil, the White House has imposed drastic funding cuts on the EPA. In 1984 it operated with the same purchasing power as it had in 1973, even though the workload was increasing. Current EPA director Lee Thomas has worked hard to get the agency back into gear. But his background as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency explains the EPA's current fire-fighting approach. Long-term solutions are not sought. Much more could be done, for instance, to find new methods of taking the poisonous punch out of hazardous chemicals. Some industries have seriously tried to cut down their polluting wastes. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. (3M), for instance, cut its volume of toxic wastes in half, partly by switching from solvent-based glues to water-based ones in its manufacture of adhesive tape.
Even with the expected re-authorisation of Superfund money, the EPA is up against a formidable opponent in the Reagan Administration. Passing laws is only one side of the coin. Having enough money and staff to carry them out is quite another. Violations at legitimate disposal sites usually draw only a warning letter, and illegal dumpers stand every chance of escaping EPA's thin net of 35 criminal investigators.
In a large part the revolving door between industry and the agency is responsible for the EPA's poor record. Sweetheart deals with dumpers have left the federal government stuck with millions of dollars in clean-up costs while absolved corporate executives take their liability releases, gained through token clean-up agreements, and run. A government attorney who is prosecuting a waste disposal company for violations one day may be on that company's payroll the next. In fact this is the ambition of many.
At the same time industries producing hazardous wastes have stepped up their political activities. No major environmental law passed Congress in Reagan's first term. Even valuable programs like the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts have not been renewed.
The growing power of the chemical industry on Capitol Hill is matched by the campaign contributions handed out by the companies. One recent comparison of political contributions by chemical companies to votes on Superfund reauthorisation for instance showed a near exact correlation between large gifts and lousy votes.
The tale of the EPA is a sad one. William Drayton of the Environmental Safety group, says it took 'an enormous movement in American history' to develop a national consensus that the US would provide public health protection against chemical contaminants. But what followed, says Drayton, was a 'classic Greek tragedy. Enter stage right the Reagan revolution with its enormous ideological antagonism to regulation of any sort.' Reagan would do well to listen to what the voters say. In a recent Time poll, 79 per cent of Americans said that not enough has been done to clean up toxic waste sites. More surprisingly, when asked 'Would you be willing to pay higher state and local taxes to fund clean-up programs in your area', 64 per cent answered yes.
The real problem, thinks Drayton, is that the US has 'a leader who just doesn't understand what all those Latin-named chemicals are and what they do.'
Eric Draper works with the National Campaign Against Toxic Hazards in Washington.