Superfund, the federal program to cleanup hazardous waste, probably does more harm than good. It is costly, unfair and largely ineffective. Superfund cleanups are averaging about $30 million and an estimated 12 years for completion, yet there is often no evidence of serious health risks.
Congress created Superfund in 1980 in response to what appeared to be an emergency at Love Canal, a former industrial waste site. The fear that thousands of abandoned waste dumps were threatening the nation's health led Congress to grant the Environmental Protection Agency enormous authority in the form of emergency powers. These powers are being misused. Those accused of creating the hazardous waste are forced to pay for the cleanup, but are effectively barred from court review during that period, even when a true emergency does not exist. Those who live near the sites are being unnecessarily frightened.
Financing through special taxes made Superfund largely immune from budgetary constraints, while at the same time the EPA's overstated health risks have greatly inflated the cost of cleanups. For example, the EPA frequently assumes that hazardous waste sites will become housing developments and therefore must be cleaned to the point where children can eat the dirt in their yards.
Coupling virtually unlimited powers with vast sums of public money has accomplished comparatively little in cleaning up hazardous wastes and protecting health but has violated citizens' civil rights.
To correct these problems, emergency powers should be reserved for genuine emergencies, not for all Superfund cleanups. Civil rights should be restored to citizens accused of causing harm, and these individuals should have the same recourse to the courts as those who claim personal harm or property damage. Superfund expenditures should be re-evaluated to determine how funds might be better used to deal with environmental problems and improve public health.
For more information, see "Superfund: The Shortcut that Failed," PERC Policy Series PS-5, by Richard L. Stroup, PERC senior associate.