Budget Impasse May Prolong Pensacola Superfund Struggle

    Repeated federal furloughs threaten to prolong the struggle of Rosewood Terrace and Oak Park residents in Pensacola against a pair of toxic neighbors.

    Environmental Protection Agency officials were to have met in Washington this week to discuss the possibility of moving as many as 426 low income families from houses, trailers and apartments near contaminated industrial sites off Palafox Highway - Escambia Treating Co. and Agrico Chemical Co.

    But the threat of a third federal government shutdown at week's end has put the meeting in jeopardy.

    In addition, the budget stalemate between President Clinton and Republican leaders in Congress has led to uncertainty about the future of federal environmental programs and could delay a decision for Pensacola, EPA Administrator Carol Browner warned Friday.

    "We don't have the resources, and we're not going to be able to fulfill our commitments to some communities," Browner said in a telephone interview.

    Temporary funding for the EPA expires at midnight next Friday. If Congress allows the lapse, there is no telling what will happen to the team analyzing a potential relocation of residents from near the two sites that are on the federal Superfund cleanup list.

    "If you slow the work of the staff and contractors, your decision is not going to be as timely as we'd like it to be," said Richard Troast, an official at EPA headquarters in Washing ton. "If there is no money, contractors are told to go home, and the work they are doing either at the site or (in their offices) will come to a stop."

    Beyond that, environmentalists are concerned about what the Republican-controlled Congress might do to the federal Superfund program if members overcome a thicket of disagreement to reauthorize the law this year.

    The 15-year-old hazardous waste cleanup law lapsed on Jan. 1, and the government stopped collecting taxes from oil and chemical companies that finance the Superfund trust fund.

    It is this multi-billion-dollar fund that would pay for the Escambia relocation if EPA officials agree residents should be moved.

    Since the GOP took control of both House and Senate last year, the EPA has been a target. Republicans say the EPA - particularly with Superfund - is overly bureaucratic and spends too much on lawyers instead of on cleaning up toxic waste sites. They want to limit its reach and force reforms on the agency.

    At a December meeting in Pensacola, government environmental managers promised they would decide by March which of three relocation and cleanup options the EPA would pursue.

    Work toward that deadline remained on track despite the 21-day federal shutdown that ended earlier this month, said Mark Fite, a project manager with EPA division headquarters in Atlanta, who is coordinating the Pensacola project.

    "The only thing that could cause problems is if we get sent home again on Jan. 26," Fite said.

    EPA officials are looking at three options:

    - Permanent relocation of some or all residents in four zones around the two plants, combined with cleanup and containment measures. Estimated cost: $27.7 million.

    - Temporary relocation with cleanup and burial of contaminated soil and materials at the present sites. Estimated cost: $ 34.7 million.

    - Temporary relocation with cleanup and burial of all contaminants elsewhere.  Estimated cost: $ 58.9 million.

    Soil samples from yards and under homes near the two industrial sites revealed elevated levels of toxic chemicals, including lead, dioxin and arsenic.

    For years, residents have complained the noxious stew left by their defunct industrial neighbors has made them sick.

    "This poor black community has been devastated by exposure to incredible levels of toxic chemicals," said Joel Hirschhorn, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental consultant who serves as a technical assistant to Citizens Against

    Toxic Exposure, a neighborhood advocacy group formed in 1992. "It is a horrendous situation that screams for justice."

    The EPA recognized this and last year plucked the Pensacola project off its Superfund list - which has more than 1,000 sites - to make it a national model.

    "It has national implications," said Robert Martin, an EPA ombudsman involved in the Pensacola Superfund case since 1994. "We've done very few permanent relocations in the last 15 years. This would be one of our largest."

    Since 1980, the EPA has been involved in fewer than 20 permanent relocations of residents from neighborhoods near toxic waste sites. The largest and most famous is the Love Canal community near Niagra Falls, N.Y., where several hundreds families were relocated after it was discovered their homes had been built on a former dump.

    In most of the government-sponsored relocations to date, the decision to move residents was based primarily on concern over imminent danger to public health posed by high levels of contamination, said Fite.

    Pensacola's case could set a new precedent. EPA managers are contemplating a recommendation to relocate residents because it is more cost-effective than allowing them to remain during cleanup.

    "The EPA has never relocated people on the basis of cost effectiveness," Fite said. "We're forging new ground."

    The government decision-makers also could break new ground if they recommend relocation for families living in areas where dioxin contamination is somewhat lower than the current standard of one part per billion, Fite added.

    Another important - but often unspoken - theme woven throughout all the studies, tests and discussions is that of environmental justice for the African-American families who say their health has been put at risk.

    The term - environmental justice - is a polite way of saying historic patterns of racial and economic discrimination have forced poor people of color to live in neighborhoods closest to the dirtiest industries. Those same factors remain at play when it comes to cleanup, advocates contend.

    "Because this is an African-American community, I feel the progress has been slower than it would have been had it not been an African-American community," said Margaret Williams, president of Citizens Against Toxic Waste.

    Clinton addressed the issue early in his administration with an executive order directing all federal agencies to "eliminate any disproportionate risks from environmental hazards borne by minority and low-income communities."

    The concept of environmental justice is certainly at play in the decision-making process involving the neighborhoods near the Escambia Treating Co. and Agrico sites, said EPA ombudsman Martin.

    "In my book, these folks are an environmental justice community," Martin said. "We do pay attention to that."

Copyright 1996 Gannett Company, Inc.
January 19, 1996, Friday
BYLINE: LARRY WHEELER; Gannett News Service
LOAD-DATE: January 22, 1996