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Superfund sites grow as money dwindles

Nationally, 23 sites were added to the Superfund list of the most hazardous contaminated sites. Only eight were cleared. Funding has has fallen since the end of a tax on energy companies.
By Hailey Branson-Potts, Staff Writer Published: October 10, 2010

photo - The Hardage superfund site in Criner, OK after the site cleanup. The Hardage site has been upgraded to a cleanup complete status while over a thousand other sites still await the funds to finish their projects.
The Hardage superfund site in Criner, OK after the site cleanup. The Hardage site has been upgraded to a cleanup complete status while over a thousand other sites still await the funds to finish their projects.
After 30 years and more than $360 million in federal money, fewer than half of Oklahoma's most toxic areas have been cleaned and removed from the federal government's Superfund program.

With seemingly endless litigation and high costs, Superfund is receiving renewed focus nationwide as the government wrestles with how to pay for it.

Superfund faces declining revenues and slowed cleanup progress with nearly 1,300 sites remaining on the National Priorities List — the nation's most hazardous contaminated areas, or Superfund sites.

“The money going into this program is fairly limited in its impact,” said Bud Scott, director of the Oklahoma chapter of Sierra Club. “It's caused a stigma because you throw a lot of money at an issue because it requires a lot of money and there is never enough.”

Sixty-one sites nationwide have been proposed for the priorities list but not yet added, including the National Zinc Corp. site in Bartlesville proposed in 1993.

Since Superfund was created in December 1980, Oklahoma has had 13 of its worst environmental problem sites placed on the list.

Of those, only five have been cleaned and cleared from it.

Remaining cleanups will require millions more dollars. The source of that money remains unknown.

“It's a major concern because where else is the money going to come from?” Scott said. “Thirty years is barely a scratch on the surface in addressing the problems we have inflicted on the environment.”

Superfund in Oklahoma

The locals called them “our mountains.”

In February, they were prominent in the picturesque paintings hanging in G&J's Gorilla Cage cafe in Picher, just north of Miami in northeast Oklahoma.

But the Gorilla Cage is closed now, and Picher no longer exists.

The mountains aren't mountains at all. Rather, the gray, 100-foot piles contain millions of tons of toxic mine waste, laced with lead, cadmium and other heavy metals so harmful to people's health that the federal government funded a $55 million buyout of Picher and closed it down.

More than $233 million — 65 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency money spent on Oklahoma Superfund sites — has come to this area, the Tar Creek Superfund site.

“Tar Creek is one of the problem children of the Superfund program nationally,” Scott said. “It's had some of the best money thrown at it.”

The 40-square-mile site is one of the largest in the nation and includes the towns of Picher, Commerce, Cardin, North Miami and Quapaw.

The 12 other sites Oklahoma has had on the Superfund list are mostly abandoned refineries and landfills. Five of those sites are no longer on the National Priorities List. The state's eight active sites are relatively few compared to elsewhere. The average number of sites per state is 25. The number ranges from zero in North Dakota to 111 in New Jersey.

Funding a growing problem

Cleanups are slowing while the number of Superfund sites is growing.

“The EPA folks are trying to spread not enough resources,” said John Stephenson, director of Natural Resources and Environment for the U.S. Ongoing coverage: Superfund sites Ongoing coverage: Tar Creek

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