Charging that the Reagan Administration has drastically underestimated toxic waste dangers, a nonpartisan congressional office issued a report Saturday estimating that the federal government may have to spend $100 billion over the next 50 years to clean up at least 10,000 hazardous waste sites.
The report, by the Office of Technology Assessment, said its study of cleanup efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that in many cases the risks have simply been shifted from one community to another. Dumps now used for disposal of EPA-collected wastes pose dangers that may require federal intervention in the years ahead, it said.
"The EPA argument is, 'Let's keep the program small and manageable,' " said Joel Hirschhorn, director of the 18-month study. "Our argument is that, if you want to prevent an environmental crisis and contamination of large amounts of drinking water in the years ahead, you'd better identify those sites and prevent them from geting worse."
Hirschhorn said the $100-billion estimate is "conservative" because it represents only the federal government's probable share of cleanup costs. In addition, according to the Office of Technology Assessment report, private industry and the states will have to contribute billions to bring the crisis under control.
By contrast, the EPA estimates that only 2,000 dumps are contaminated enough to warrant federal intervention, and it figures total cleanup costs at about $20 billion. The EPA says it has begun cleanup work on more than 300 sites among the nearly 800 on its list of those most urgently in need of attention.
The agency, assuming that industry will voluntarily meet half of the cost of cleaning those sites, estimates the federal share of the costs at $11.1 billion beyond the $1.6 billion already supplied to its Superfund for coping with toxic waste dumps. It has asked Congress for $5.3 billion to replenish the Superfund for the next five years.
Bill Hedeman, director of the EPA office that administers the Superfund program, acknowledged that thousands of additional sites across the nation--up to 378,000--pose health hazards. But, after the most dangerous 2,000 dumps are cleaned, he said, state and local governments and private industry should be entirely responsible for cleanup efforts.
Limiting Federal Role
"The EPA has 10 regions," Hedeman said. "Each regional office covers a vast geographical area. It's a matter of what you can physically do within the structure of the federal government to address these problems."
Hirschhorn replied: "The EPA has a vision of a short-term, low-cost problem. We have a vision of a long-term, high-cost problem."
The Office of Technology Assessment is not alone in its criticism of the EPA's effort to limit the federal role in cleaning up hazardous wastes. In House testimony last week, an official of the General Accounting Office, another arm of Congress, put the number of dangerous sites potentially requiring federal attention at more than 4,000 and charged that the EPA has failed to mount an effort to identify many hazardous sites.
"While the priority sites EPA has targeted for permanent cleanup action are among the worst in the nation, many of the remaining sites also present serious health and environmental risks," Milton J. Socolar, special assistant to the comptroller general of the GAO, told a House committee.
No Uniform Protection
Socolar noted that the EPA does not monitor cleanup efforts by the states. "State resources, authorities and capabilities vary widely," he said. "As a result, the public may not receive uniform protection from the dangers posed by hazardous wastes."
The Office of Technology Assessment report said that not only has the EPA failed to identify the scope of the problem, but it has mismanaged work at sites where cleanup efforts have begun. "Too often, toxic wastes are left on sites exposed to rain, and they migrate to contaminate underground water," the report said.
Finding Dangerous Sites
The group recommended that the EPA devote the next 15 years to identifying dangerous sites and preventing contamination from spreading while postponing permanent cleanup until improved technology is available. These initial efforts could include covering waste sites, transferring buried wastes to above-ground storage facilities and draining surface lagoons, it said.
Without such efforts, the report warned, "many festering sites may go unattended, spreading contamination and getting worse."
Among the examples of sloppy technical work cited in the report were efforts to clean up the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside County--attempts that began before the EPA toxic waste program existed. Early findings of ground water contamination were inaccurately interpreted, the report said, and wastes were moved to other California dumps that now pose hazards themselves.
'Written in a Vacuum'
The EPA's Hedeman complained that the Office of Technology Assessment failed to consult with the agency before writing its report. He said the report underestimates the EPA's cleanup record and suggests changes that the agency has already adopted.
"The report was essentially written in a vacuum and is totally silent on the program initiatives taken over the last several months," he charged.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently voted to authorize $7.5 billion to extend the federal Superfund program for five years, $2.2 billion more than President Reagan requested. Other committees will decide how to fund the effort. The program has operated on a $1.6-billion budget--about 12.5% from tax revenues and the rest from the chemical industry--since its creation in 1980.
The Senate committee added provisions that would give citizens the right to sue to force government action and compensate victims of toxic waste dumps.