The Corner

Congress Making Mess of Landfill Cleanup?

Ever since the 1970s, when the federal government more or less monopolized the cleanup of toxic landfills through the Superfund program, cities all over the country have been frustrated with the often slow pace of cleanup.

Take the West Lake landfill near St. Louis’ international airport.  It’s been a local eyesore since 1974 but has posed no discernible danger to local public health and safety despite some radiological material left over the 1940s Manhattan Project being present.

The Centers for Disease Control says that there is no health risk to local residents from groundwater, air, or soil contamination. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies have also found no indication of immediate health risk.

But local residents complain about the foul-smelling landfill and are upset about the lack of EPA cleanup.  Last year, the EPA finally bestirred itself and finally announced a clean up plan involving private sector parties paying much of the cost of the cleanup.

But fed-up local residents and outside groups have demanded more. Earlier this year, they convinced the U.S. Senate to pass a bill to give the Army Corps of Engineers the authority to clean up the radioactive waste.

Missouri Reps. William Lacy Clay and Ann Wagner have introduced companion legislation in the House — and also demanded it be passed immediately with no hearings.

One possible reason for the haste is that a main backer of the McCaskill bill is the Teamsters Union, a politically powerful player in the St. Louis area. The union says it is concerned the landfill represents “a human rights violation.” 

It also worries that landfill workers at the site “lack a union and are left without a means to voice concerns without fear of retaliation.” Transferring control of the project to the Corps of Engineers could mean more union involvement in the cleanup — and higher wages for the workers on it. 

But giving the project to the Corps of Engineers and having them start from scratch is likely to cause delays and leave taxpayers holding much more of the tab. Indeed, the Corps of Engineers agrees that giving it the cleanup responsibility won’t speed up removal of waste from the site.  In a letter to federal lawmakers this month.  Steve Stockton, the Corps’ director of civil works, wrote that his agency’s limited resources wouldn’t enable it to prioritize the site.

“Additionally, there is no guarantee that the ultimate cleanup actions would be different than those which would occur under the current process,” Stockton wrote

But environmental groups insist they know better than the Corps what its capabilities are. Ed Smith, policy director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, told Missouri Pubic Radio stresses that the Corps “has a skillset when it comes to radioactive waste that’s greater than the EPA’s and they need to use it to clean up this site… We’re talking a literal corps of engineers. That’s what it’s going to take to clean up West Lake.”

Environmental cleanups are complex enough that it makes no sense for Congress and special interest groups like the Teamsters Union to demand last-minute changes that dramatically increase the cost of a cleanup while delaying implementation.

A better approach in handling federal Superfund sites would be to transfer responsibility and funding for cleanups to the states, which could establish their own priorities for cleanups. Micromanaging such decisions from Washington rarely improves outcomes. 


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