10/6/2004

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Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239

Chances of Superfund site cleanup better with less community involvement

LAWRENCE -- The 41 million Americans who are living within four miles of a Superfund site that is awaiting cleanup might want to consider these research findings:

Chances for a cleanup improve if the problem is less serious and thus less expensive to resolve; the level of community involvement in trying to fix it is lower; the community gets help from a legislator.

Dorothy Daley, University of Kansas assistant professor of political science, reached the conclusions after studying the cleanup of Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites. She reported the findings in the August issue of the Policy Studies Journal in an article co-authored by David Layton, associate professor at the University of Washington.

Daley analyzed data from the early 1980s through 1998. Between 1980 and 1992, cleanups were completed at 156 sites; between 1993 and 1999, 541. Including these, about 1,235 Superfund sites have been designated nationwide.

Kansas has 17 Superfund sites in 12 counties, according to a National Priorities List on the EPA-maintained Web site, http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/npl/ks.htm.

According to Daley˙s research, cheaper sites are more likely to be cleaned up. The average cost of site cleanup is $30 million, Daley said. The site with the most expensive projected cleanup, about $170 million, had a 60 percent lower chance of being finished than an average site, according to Daley˙s calculations.

Community-action group activity lessens the possibility of project completion, Daley said. Sites that have such groups are 80 percent less likely to reach completion than those that lack the groups. Sites where community groups have received Technical Assistance Grants from the EPA are 50 percent less likely to reach completion than sites without them, Daley said.

"If you add players," Daley said, "you increase what economists call 'transaction costs' and things get more difficult. There˙s one more person to talk to, one more concern to address that you hadn˙t thought of."

The players who really matter are members of Congress.

"Sites are systematically more likely to reach construction completion when an elected official from the site˙s congressional district sits on a Superfund oversight committee," Daley writes. The likelihood increases by 20 percent, according to the study.

Daley finds both good and bad news in her discoveries. She said that it could be argued that, in picking the easier sites to address first, the EPA is gaining experience. It˙s also true, she said, that in striving for consensus when community involvement is substantial, the EPA must go slow.

On the other hand, from a public health perspective, EPA inaction is a betrayal of its enunciated Superfund philosophy: "Worst sites first."

Daley said she was surprised that population density around sites wasn˙t consistently the EPA's most important consideration in the timing of cleanups. "Given that the real concern with hazardous waste sites was human health exposure," she said, "I would have considered that a slam dunk."

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