Living with Hazardous Wastes

July 29, 1988

Report Outline
Special Focus


The evacuation of hundreds of families from Love Canal in August 1978 dramatized the hazardous-waste threat. Congress responded by creating the “superfund.” But relatively few hazardous-waste sites have actually been cleaned up, despite efforts to strengthen the program. Critics say there is nothing particularly wrong with the program itself; they say the problems are with the way it's being implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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In August 1978 the problem of hazardous waste began to seep into the national consciousness. Hundreds of families were evacuated that month from the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., after the area was declared unsafe because of the presence of toxic chemicals. This widely publicized incident prompted Congress two years later to establish a $1.6 billion “superfund” to clean up abandoned hazardous-waste sites and spills or leaks of hazardous substances. In the ensuing years, however, superfund proved less than super at accomplishing its entire mission. During superfund's first six years, only 14 of the nation's worst hazardous-waste sites were actually cleaned up.

Disappointed at the lack of progress, Congress in 1986 extended and greatly expanded the superfund program. The five-year, 88.5 billion reauthorization measure directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers the program, to change its strategy for dealing with hazardous-waste sites. For the most part, EPA had been containing the waste at the site or exhuming the waste and disposing of it elsewhere. The new law directed EPA to opt whenever possible for methods that permanently reduced the volume, mobility or toxicity of the waste at the original site. Congress also directed EPA to begin actual

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