EPA faces 'big-time' battle over Superfund management

An Environmental Protection Agency official faced rough questioning-and a warning of battles to come with senators-during a hearing Wednesday about a slowdown in cleanup work at the nation's worst hazardous waste sites.

Marianne Lamont Horinko, head of EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Superfund, Toxics, Risk and Waste Management Subcommittee that the Bush administration is fully committed to the program and that no Superfund sites have had cleanup work suspended, despite reports to the contrary.

Her testimony came amid a flurry of attention to a June EPA inspector general's report that found a $226 million gap between what EPA regional offices had requested for cleanups and what EPA headquarters had provided in fiscal year 2002.

Democrats, including Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., seized on the report in early July as evidence that the administration was jeopardizing the program by holding back funds.

Indeed, EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley told the Senate panel Wednesday that failure to provide sufficient funds when waste sites are ready for cleanup can delay or prevent work needed to protect health and the environment.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who has sponsored legislation to reinstate industry taxes to help pay for Superfund, told EPA's Horinko that there will be a "major, big-time" confrontation until the administration helps increase funding.

"This is a major disagreement between the majority of this committee and EPA," Boxer said.

She also called Horinko's previous testimony "very obstructionist" in failing to divulge the existence of documents showing which sites were slated for funding.

Horinko, in her testimony, sought to dispel "myths" that she said were created by media coverage of the inspector general's report. The report captures a snapshot of EPA data on funding levels as of May 2002 and fails to consider additional funds that would come through in the third and fourth quarters, she said.

Moreover, she stressed that federal funding for Superfund has been relatively steady, at $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion, over the past five years.

Several congressional Democrats, meanwhile, testified about how funding shortfalls were slowing cleanup work in their states. Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said with the lapse of Superfund taxes, the program has become more of a facade than a fund.

"The more honest thing would be to cancel the program," he said.