Superfund cleanup inching ahead
Only 3 of 13 sites cleared

Michael Baker Published: March 7, 2004
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Sherman Edwards often visits the abandoned Cyril refinery site where he toiled half his life installing and repairing asbestos.

Gone are the hustle and bustle of the business that employed at least three generations of people in this two-gas-station Caddo County community.

The Cyril refinery is one of 13 former industrial locations in Oklahoma to be labeled among the nation's most hazardous, or Superfund sites a program with a history of strong emotion and political battles.

Instead of dirtied men pumping Oklahoma's lifeblood, the rusted Cyril refinery has a scattering of workers in white body suits and respirators.

"I put all that asbestos on that they're taking off," the 87-year-old Edwards said. "I watch them tear it off. It's hard to watch happen."

In 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added Oklahoma sites to its National Priorities List because of the public health and ecosystem threat.

Work at the sites has garnered mixed reviews locally, while funding battles waged in Washington.

About $450 million has been spent on Oklahoma Superfund sites, which include refineries, mines, military installations and junkyards, the EPA said.

The EPA Superfund program spent about $250 million. About $13 million came from Oklahoma as matching funds. Possible polluters have paid the rest, according to state and government agencies.

At its inception in 1980, Superfund was a polluter-pay tax principally on crude oil and chemical producers. The money was put in a trust fund and doled out for cleaning abandoned sites. In 1995, with Republicans newly in control of Congress and the Superfund seemingly overflowing, the tax was cut.

A new sense of urgency was added to the Superfund funding battles when the General Accounting Office recently said the trust fund is broke and taxpayer money from the general fund is making up the difference.

It costs between $1.3 billion and $1.7 billion yearly for Superfund operations. In the mid-1990s, the trust fund covered about 80 percent. Those reserves have dried up, but locations are continually added to the EPA's National Priorities List.

President Bush's 2005 budget proposes $1.4 billion in appropriations for Superfund a $124 million, or 10-percent increase over last year.

It's not enough to cover the increasing costs, said Betsy Loyless with the League of Conservation Voters in Washington.

"If we wait on taxpayers' dollars, these sites will sit forever," Loyless said. "We have to fund the abandoned cleanup fund. The polluter- pay tax was the fairest and most equitable way to do that."

There's nothing fair about the tax, said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Tulsa.

The current system targets companies that pollute a specific site and has them pay, said Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

"What I don't want to do is have a system where everybody pays regardless of whether they have polluted," he said.

Some of Oklahoma's newest sites such as Ardmore's Imperial Refinery, which operated from 1917 to 1924, and Tulsa Fuel and Manufacturing in Collinsville, which ran from 1914 to 1925 "lack strong PRPs (potentially responsible parties)," said Hal Cantwell, who oversees Superfund sites for the state Environmental Quality Department.

Those two sites demonstrate an inherent problem with finding a responsible party: the company polluted decades ago and is possibly no longer in existence or in financial ruins, Cantwell said.

In Oklahoma, Cantwell said, while the process may slow somewhat without a reserve in the trust fund, work continues at such sites largely because the state is willing to provide matching funds.

Inhofe said he prefers to find a responsible party and have them pay for everything. But, Inhofe said, if a company no longer exists or cannot pay, he would rather cleanup money come from the general fund.

"I'd far prefer to do that than go after people who are innocent," Inhofe said.

At many sites such as Mosley Road Sanitary Landfill near Midwest City, which has been on the National Priorities List since 1990, companies are instrumental in the cleanup process. Waste Management Inc. inherited the liability to clean up the landfill when it bought the property in 1984 along with an adjacent landfill that is in use and not part of the Superfund site.

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