PAYING FOR THE PAST
APRIL 16, 1996
Efforts to reform the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program continue to move their way through Congress. Superfund identifies and then cleans up areas considered possibly harmful to human health. Reformers say the program has gone too far and accomplished little. Spencer Michels examines how these issues affect one town in California.
Click here to go to the Superfund Basic Research Program.
SPENCER MICHELS: Mining for gold more than a century ago was what built the little town of Sutter Creek in California's motherload. Despite its old time facade, this town is embroiled in a modern battle over what the gold miners left behind--arsenic, commonly known as a poison, and the role of the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund. That's the federal program designed to clean up hazardous waste and spills of toxic substances which have been designated threats to public health. Superfund passed by Congress in 1980 depends for its clean-up money mostly on a tax from the chemical and petroleum industries, source of much pollution. That tax expired at the end of last year. The money will run out in a year or so. If the tax is to be reinstated and the Fund reauthorized, Republicans in Congress insist Superfund must be reformed or changed. The controversy that began at this mine head at Sutter Creek's Center Eureka Mine casts light on the fight in Congress over Superfund. Beginning in 1858 at Sutter Creek, miners sank tunnels a mile into the earth and dislodged rock. For a century, they sent that rock to the surface, where it was pulverized and the gold removed. What was left over were tailings. Some remained near the mine, and some flowed down flumes and creeks to sites like this, where they remain. EPA Coordinator Brad Shipley has collected some.
BRAD SHIPLEY, EPA Site Coordinator: It's a very fine, flour-like powder. That's what these tailings are. It's processed ore. In concentrated tailings, you have three hundred to seven hundred parts per million of arsenic consistently. So it's very mobile. A very small particle can be moved in the wind, or very easily transported in water and runoff.
SPENCER MICHELS: A few years ago, developers with all the proper permits began construction of a 40-home subdivision in a spot where the mine operators had left a pile of tailings. But after a complaint from a worker, the state and then the federal EPA arrived to test the area for arsenic. They documented their activities on videotape. Superfund's acting regional director, Keith Takata.
KEITH TAKATA, Superfund Official: We know that at the levels of arsenic we have at this site if people are continued to be exposed to it, there will be health effects, and the health effects of arsenic are things like cancer, reproductive effects that don't show up for years down the road.
SPENCER MICHELS: Superfund called the Mesa De Oro subdivision and emergency response site, a designation that bypasses the lengthy procedures at locations on the more well-known national priorities list of 1300 Superfund sites.
BRAD SHIPLEY: To me, this site is a perfect example of how we're doing things a lot differently than we used to. We came in here a couple of years ago. We did some sampling, and then we went right to the clean-up stage without a lot of study.
SPENCER MICHELS: Construction of new homes was halted, and the EPA began removing and then replacing a foot or two of soil both on the 12-acre Mesa and in the yards of the homes below. They shored up the sloped sides of the Mesa, using a plastic webbed soil container.
BRAD SHIPLEY: The point here is we're trying to contain the tailings, prevent them from migrating into the yard. We're also trying to prevent direct contact, so we're containing the contaminant and preventing exposure.
SPENCER MICHELS: But these residents and businessmen say that is unnecessary because there is no danger. They question the whole process of the Superfund's involvement at Sutter Creek.
GEORGE WHEELDON, Geologist: So the EPA is coming in and saying the sky is falling but yet the facts and the background indicates that this evidence is not there.
SPENCER MICHELS: Geologist George Wheeldon says the arsenic from the mine is in a form, arsenopyrite, that is not dangerous, not absorbed into the body.
GEORGE WHEELDON: They've tested the people that live at Mesa De Oro, and they've tested urine and arsenic and levels in their hair, and they come up with absolutely nothing.
SPENCER MICHELS: To point out just how safe the local arsenic is, Wheeldon wears a ring containing gold and arsenopyrite, common substances in the motherload.
GEORGE WHEELDON: Are we going to put a "for sale" sign on the total motherload a couple of miles wide for a hundred and twenty miles long, depress property values, and, and destroy people's lives and homes for a problem that doesn't appear to be there?
BRAD SHIPLEY: Show me one article that says these, the arsenic in these tailings is safe. Show me one article that says arsenopyrite is not hazardous. I have an open mind. I try to look at that material, and I haven't seen anything that's safe.
SPENCER MICHELS: The family that lives in this house next to the Mesa does not feel safe. The EPA found arsenic dust in their vacuum cleaner bags and arsenic in the yard. The government arranged for soil and plant removal around the house. Roberta Hughes, mother of two children, says she's thankful for the work.
ROBERTA HUGHES, Sutter Creek Resident: Arsenic is a known human carcinogen, and if we're exposed to it over many, many years, it could contribute to some of us getting cancer. And I don't think that's a risk that we should have to be exposed to.
SPENCER MICHELS: The EPA agreed and paid for part of the $5 million project to clean up the whole area. Nearly half the money came from a company, Allied Signal, that had bought the mine site long after it ceased producing gold. And developers of the homes were told they too would have to contribute to the clean-up. Although some Congressmen want to change that liability policy, the EPA defends it.
KEITH TAKATA: What Congress did in the original law was pass liability provisions that made people who actually caused the pollution responsible for cleaning it up.
SPENCER MICHELS: Of course, some of the people who caused the problem here have been dead maybe, maybe 50 years.
KEITH TAKATA: But these are the successor companies of the companies that actually caused the problem. And when they purchased those companies, they purchased both the assets and the liabilities of that company.
SPENCER MICHELS: According to EPA's critics, such a policy penalizes the innocent. Mike Sweeney heads up a new gold mining company near Sutter Creek.
MIKE SWEENEY, Gold Mine Operator: The EPA has the authority under the Superfund Act to be able to take, come in and tell you that you've got to clean up a problem that you didn't create. It could have happened a hundred years ago, but because you are in the chain of title to that piece of property, and it doesn't matter who is in the chain of title, it's whoever has the deepest pocket is the one that's going to pay for it.
KEITH TAKATA: And the question is how do you get it cleaned up? You can use all government funds to do it and then you wouldn't have the whole idea of liability and going after people, but then you'd have a huge cost to government.
SPENCER MICHELS: Developers at Mesa De Oro say the Superfund law has cost them a fortune.
AL KAPLAN, Developer: The total at our expense, we have already paid out $200,000 in cash for material and dump trucks and all that that we had to do to put this dirt around the, around the buildings.
SHELDON THOMPSON, Developer: I'm broke because I took all my assets and borrowed against my assets to build houses, and I can't sell the houses. I can't do anything with the houses.
SPENCER MICHELS: The EPA says the developers should have done studies to detect the arsenic before building.
BRAD SHIPLEY: Those people that are the detractors are mining interests. They're also the developers that ramrodded this through the city government in the first place.
SPENCER MICHELS: Paying for the clean-up here and in Superfund sites across the country has provoked a slew of lawsuits that have delayed the work.
MIKE SWEENEY: Most of the money that's been spent on the Superfund has been spent on attorneys and consultants doing studies and not actually doing physical clean-up.
SPENCER MICHELS: The EPA says Superfund money is spent only on clean-up. Money for lawyers does not come from the Superfund, itself. Still, congressional Republicans want mandatory arbitration instead of lawsuits. The EPA says the Republicans also want to absolve some companies from liability if they polluted before 1987. And some Congressmen want to lessen the amount of clean-up needed. But even if those changes occur, a broader criticism remains in Congress and here in Sutter Creek. Bill Briner writes a column for the local newspaper.
WILLIAM BRINER, Columnist: And it's very frightening when you see the arrogance of these folks. These--you know, the government used to be public servants. And now they've taken over the mantle of public masters. And that is terrifying. They have yet to respond to anyone. They're not accountable to anyone, and they've just thrown away several million dollars on a problem that does not exist and they've bankrupted people for no reason whatsoever.
SPENCER MICHELS: While EPA officials dismiss that as rhetoric, they do admit that nationwide reform of some Superfund practices is needed and has already begun. They say they've tried to ease up on property owners, and they've tried to speed up the clean-up of 1300 Superfund sites. But such work, they explained, is complicated, expensive, and necessary.
KEITH TAKATA: You talk to communities that we've worked with, nearby sites that we've cleaned up with, you know, ask them for intrusive, and I think the answer they'll tell you is that they're glad we're here, and we still have that kind of a program.
SPENCER MICHELS: At Sutter Creek, the clean-up of arsenic-laden tailings continues. EPA considers the project a success. Critics call it a fiasco. Nationally, Congress is wrestling with the same issues as it tries to shape a new Superfund law.