Media in Trouble: All the news thats UNfit to print!: The Superfund State Part 2

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Superfund State Part 2

In this second installment I will try to cover a bit more ground on the Ringwood Sludgepool.  However, I will focus this edition on the Superfund law itself so that we can all learn a bit more about what the law accomplishes.

In a nutshell, the law consists of two things.  First, the law created a tax on chemical corporations that gets collected into a fund for cleaning up any messes they have left in the wake of their prosperity.  Second, the law also allows for broad Federal intervention in the oversight of clean-ups.  This law went into effect December of 1980 and was retroactive to some extent, so that messes made before 1980 could fall within its jurisdiction.

CERCLA established prohibitions and requirements concerning closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites, and:

 * provided for the liability of persons responsible for releases of hazardous waste at these sites; and
 * established a trust fund to provide for cleanup when no responsible party could be identified.

CERCLA authorizes two kinds of response actions:

 * Removal actions. Typically short-term response actions, where actions may be taken to address releases or threatened releases requiring prompt response. Removal actions are classified as: (1) emergency; (2) time-critical; and (3) non-time critical. Removal responses are generally used to address risks such as abandoned drums containing hazardous substances, contaminated surface soils posing acute risks to human health or the environment, etc. The regulations for removal actions can be found at 40 C.F.R. 300.415.
 * Remedial actions. Usually more long-term response actions than a removal action. Remedial actions permanently and significantly reduce the risks associated with releases or threats of releases of hazardous substances that are serious but lack the time-criticality of a removal action. These actions can be conducted only at sites listed on Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA), National Priorities List (NPL), in the United States and territories. The regulations for remedial actions can be found at 40 C.F.R. 300.430.

Under CERCLA, four classes of parties may be liable for contamination at a Superfund site:

 * the current owner or operator of the site (CERCLA section 107(a));
 * the owner or operator of a site at the time that disposal of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant occurred (CERCLA section 107(a)(2);
 * a person who arranged for the disposal of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant at a site (CERCLA section 107(a)(3)); and
 * a person who transported a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant to a site; that transporter must have also selected that site for the disposal of the hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants (CERCLA section 107(a)(4)).

So it seems clear about how to handle what it considers a toxic waste dump Superfund site.  (remember NJ is #1 in the country with 116 of its very own toxic waste dumps Superfund sites)

As far as I can tell, the CERCLA law is well intentioned and it has worked to clean up many environmental mishaps throughout its history.  However, as with many laws, there are loopholes.  Nobody is better at finding loopholes to the laws they write they are bound to than Corporate lawyers.  Unfortunately CERCLA has been weakened many times by legal arm wrestling (as I suppose is common when large sums of money are at risk of being exchanged).  Last time I mentioned how GE had wheeled a deal to clean some, but not all, of the PCB's it has contributed to the glorious Hudson.

But there are no guarantees that the $700 million project will go smoothly, because the consent decree splits the cleanup into two phases. While General Electric has agreed to Phase 1, it will not make a decision about the second phase until the first is completed. The company also agreed to pay $78 million to cover government costs associated with the cleanup, on top of $37 million it has already paid.

General Electric used PCB's, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in the manufacture of transformers. PCB's were banned in 1976, but the large amount of the chemicals that G.E. had discharged into the Hudson had settled into the bottom of the river, where they posed a continuing threat to the environment and to people who ate fish caught in the Hudson.


There are many nuggets like this in this article.  Take this typical excuse given by the company for you know... "leavin' it deya".
For years the company argued that dredging the river mud would cause more problems than leaving the PCB's undisturbed. Environmental groups and community organizations along the river claimed yesterday that the consent decree did not ensure that the entire river would ever be decontaminated.

And of course some more deal details:

Under the terms of the agreement, G.E. will dredge the heaviest deposits of PCB's, at a cost of $100 million to $150 million. That work, which is expected to take about a year, will remove about 10 percent of the 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment.

Excellent isn't it?  A big rich corporation bitching about cleaning up 1/10th of the mess they've made.  For about 6/10ths of 1% of their profits from one year.  So you see, it is these deals (among other things) that can weaken the Superfund law.  

In my next installment I will focus on how CERCLA has failed the Ringwood area.  Until then, I urge you all to read The Bergen Record's fine (yet unprinteable, uncopy-pasteable) reporting over at Toxic Legacy.