Superfund super fun

Two SLO County eco-threats are on the mend, but at what price? And, more importantly, who’s paying it?



After well over a century of contamination, a final resolution on a pair of abandoned mercury mines almost couldn’t taste sweeter for local environmental activists. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency granted Superfund status to the Buena Vista and Klau mines—both just west of Paso Robles—bringing to an end the dilemma of how to bankroll the massive cleanups. Arriving on the eve of Earth Day, the news seemed grand for the visitors and native population of Lake Nacimiento, as well as anyone in the North County who drinks water. However, last week also marked midnight for tax season—a somber reminder of who really stands to pick up the check when all is said and done.
Joining an unlikely tax reform alliance, the local chapter of the Sierra Club expresses frustration that the cost of these two hefty environmental projects will now fall entirely upon the public. Not long ago, a “polluter pays� taxation policy proved the fiscal backbone of Superfund cleanups. That ended in 1995, when Congress opted not to renew the industrial taxes that fed a reservoir of coin for future endeavors. Eight years later, the trust fund ran dry and taxpayer support for environmental cleanup promptly spiked to over a billion dollars annually. A report compiled by an alliance of state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) earlier this year estimated the federal taxpayer burden at $1.3 billion in 2006, an increase of $28 million from 2005.
Sierra Club Santa Lucia chapter coordinator Andrew Christie blasts the Bush administration for repelling efforts to reincarnate the trust fund. “The President has supported programs where taxpayers, not polluters, would be forced to pay to clean up abandoned toxic waste sites,� he says. Echoing sentiments common among PIRG coordinators nationwide, the Sierra Club claims that the government’s continued failure to pass the cost on to polluters constitutes a tax holiday for the guilty parties. Christie also complained of the apparent drop in Superfund site efficiency, pointing out that the EPA completes fewer and fewer projects every year, despite the ramp-up in funding.
The “polluter pays� system rose out of the ashes of the Love Canal debacle of 1980, when developers in New York haplessly built a community on land saturated with chemical waste. The resulting Comprehensive Environmental Response Cleanup and Liability Act (CERCLA) dropped the buck on polluters through a series of taxes levied on certain industries. The federal government stapled fees to tonnage use of 42 toxic chemicals, applied similar tariffs to barrels of crude, and taxed the profit lines of those industries allegedly responsible for almost half of all Superfund sites. Spots earning this dubious distinction run the gamut from small urban brownfields to the multimillion-dollar messes dwelling in the skeletons of vast abandoned mining operations. Largely because of the daunting breadth of some California cleanups, Golden State taxpayers will fork over $157 million to the EPA this year—the second-most per site and, far and away, the heftiest bill overall.
Angela Logomasini, director of environmental policy at the non-profit Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), calls the Superfund taxes discriminatory and dubbed the Superfund program at large “a colossal failure.� She said CEI supports the principle behind the “polluter pays� model, but in practice, the EPA’s assigning of fault is often incredibly arbitrary. “The system was based on the premise that certain corporations were inherently guilty,� Logomasini asserts. “It’s unfair for petrochemical companies that never caused a problem.� Certainly the Superfund program drew criticism in the past for its strict standards, which sometimes blamed farm owners and even, in some well-publicized instances, urban Catholic Church parishes. Logomasini suggests that a reexamination of the program appears a wiser course than throwing more money at an inefficient system. In 2004, the Senate agreed with Super-tax opponents, shooting down a proposal to revive the Superfund trust fund by a vote of 43-56.
Although the induction of the mines to Club Superfund brings this issue to SLO County, the battle over the Klau and Buena Vista mines hearkens back several decades. Since operations ceased in 1970, mercury has leached out of both sites and into the north fork of the Tablas Creek, according to the EPA, prompting the removal of 114,000 cubic yards of contaminated material in 2000.
As is the case with so many mine cleanups, site owner Harold Biaginni lacked the resources to finance the effort, so the county had to get in line for federal assistance. Though attempting to gauge the overall cost of the project is a lot like trying to size up an iceberg from the deck of a boat, a price tag in the millions seems a foregone conclusion.
EPA project manager Michele Dineyazche recently requested $1 million for year one of the remedial investigation and hopes that stage will take less than two years. Rick Sugarek, who has for the past four years worked at the site of the largest Superfund mercury investigation to date—the Sulfur Bank Mine in Lake County—says the EPA benefits from a volume of knowledge on the contaminant’s effect on the environment, but cleaning up waterways often proves more difficult than cleaning the mine site itself.
Therefore, the potential size of the project remains a mystery. Ecological researcher Tom Suchanek, who worked with Sugarek at Sulfur Bank, asserts the variables, and consequent complexity, involved in a mercury cleanup could prove staggering. The Lake County site earned Superfund status in 1991 and the EPA began a cleanup effort the following year. To this day, the effectiveness of the remedy remains in doubt, with scientists unsure of the continued extent of the contamination. “It’s been 15 years and we’re still in the stage of remediation at Sulfur Bank,� Suchanek laments. Sugarek reports the study is finally ready to move past the planning phase, but said the scramble for funding continues to gum up the works.
Could a similar marathon lie in store for the North County Superfunds? Experts seem reticent to speculate, but Suchanek says geothermic springs—natural sources of mercury present in the North County—could potentially emerge as a complication in tracing contamination after the initial EPA fix. Engineering geologist David Schwartzbart claims the waterways flowing around the springs east of the mines would carry north, rather than run into Nacimiento. “But, really, who knows?� he ponders. “Nature is always greater than we are.� ∆

Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at

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