For 40 years, timber factories in the East Texas town of Jasper saturated the soil and water with creosote, a carcinogenic compound used to treat wood in the production of telephone poles and railroad ties. While the two plants closed in the mid 1980s, the pollution remained. In 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency, concerned about potentially disastrous groundwater contamination, designated both Jasper plants as Superfund toxic cleanup sites.

During the next four years, the Superfund program temporarily stabilized the pollution in Jasper. EPA then devised a permanent cleanup plan for the sites that would help protect the Jasper Aquifer, from which more than 11,000 county residents get their drinking water. That’s when the money ran out. As the Observer reported last fall, the Jasper sites were among two dozen Superfund projects that had their funding slashed by the Bush Administration in 2002. Recently, Jasper officials learned that they were once again passed over for funding in 2003. Nationally, eight other Superfund sites got no federal money and hundreds more received only partial funding. The Jasper sites haven’t seen a dime from the EPA in three years, and the cleanup has halted. Meanwhile, cancer-causing creosote continues to leak into the soil and water.

Since its inception at the end of the Carter Administration, Superfund has been one of the nation’s most successful environmental programs. It identifies the nation’s most polluted areas, tracks down the responsible companies and forces them to fund the cleanup. If no guilty party can be found, the government pays for the cleanup itself with a trust fund that, in the past, was financed through a tax on oil and chemical companies, a practice known as “polluter pays.”

But in 1995, Congressional Republicans discontinued the Superfund tax on industry. With its lone funding source gone, the Superfund trust fund has shrunk from a 1996 high of $3 billion to just $28 million last year. By late 2004, the trust fund will likely have vanished. Administration officials point out that Superfund’s overall budget has remained constant, at about $1.3 billion a year. The difference, however, is that Superfund must now claw for funding in the federal budget with numerous other programs akin to the difference between living off a huge savings account and living paycheck to paycheck. More importantly, American taxpayers are footing the bill for those cleanups as opposed to the industries that did the polluting.

Not only are some polluters not paying anymore, but the lack of available cash has slowed toxic cleanups across the country. In 2003, the EPA completed cleanups at 40 toxic sites. That’s the lowest number of finished cleanups in almost 15 years, and less than half the 87 sites the EPA wrapped up in the final year of the Clinton Administration.

The official line at the EPA is that, despite the cash crunch, all Superfund sites that pose an imminent threat to human health are being funded. For example, the EPA contends the Jasper sites pose no immediate health threat. That’s a lie. In fact, the agency has no idea what the risks are. One of Jasper’s three city drinking water wells is less than a mile on a hydrological down-gradient from the creosote contamination. In the EPA’s most recent groundwater study, conducted three years ago, creosote had polluted groundwater 50 feet below the surface. That’s far shallower than most wells, but no one knows how deep the pollution has reached by now. Regional EPA officials have planned another groundwater study. But without funding, it can’t conduct field work. If that isn’t an imminent health risk, then what is? —DM

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST