The EPA has a history of impeding environmental protection, most notably with toxic-waste-site cleanup and nuclear waste storage.
In the wake of the 1978 Love Canal controversy, a lame-duck Congress and president enacted the Superfund law in December 1980 to provide for the cleanup of so-called toxic-waste sites. But the Superfund law was poorly designed. By the early 1990s, few sites had been cleaned up. Moreover, while it would take only about two years to actually clean up a site, it would take 10 years to progress to the point of implementation. An average cleanup cost $25 million. The Department of Energy was looking down the barrel of $300 billion worth of cleanups. More money was spent litigating cleanups than actually cleaning up.
Although there were many problematical aspects of the Superfund law, the EPA’s control over cleanups was the greatest obstacle to the program’s goals. “How clean is clean?” was the famous rhetorical question of the time. In the early years of Superfund, the EPA doggedly maintained that sites had to be cleaned up virtually to something near Garden of Eden status - an obviously silly goal for a dump or an industrial facility. It wasn’t good enough just to seal off the facilities and prevent public exposure to substances at the site. Such standards added unnecessary millions to the cost of every cleanup. Because private parties had to pay, they fought the EPA every step of the way.
Sites began getting cleaned up faster and more cheaply during the Clinton administration after cleanup standards became more reasonable in a practical effort to get the program moving. No longer was the groundwater at sites being pumped and treated until it was good enough to be bottled. No longer was soil treated to the point where a hypothetical child could eat spoonfuls of soil from the site’s most contaminated or “hot” spot.
Another example of EPA impeding environmental protection is the now-abandoned project to store spent nuclear fuel at the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada. Although the Yucca Mountain site was in a remote part of the Nevada desert and the spent fuel would have been stored in sealed casks one mile underground, the EPA set standards that virtually guaranteed the facility would never open.
The EPA decided that the Department of Energy (DOE) would have to be able to guarantee that there would be no significant exposures to the public from radiation for a period of 1 million years - about 200 times longer than recorded history. The DOE was being forced by the EPA to figure out how it might communicate with and warn future civilizations that might not understand English-language warnings about the spent nuclear fuel stored beneath the mountain.
DOE, of course, could never hope to meet the EPA’s standards. Despite 25 years of engineering and $30 billion in costs, Yucca Mountain was a dead man walking when the Obama administration defunded it early in 2009. Because of the lack of a long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, nuclear power plants are forced to continue storing spent fuel in on-site storage pools - facilities that are running out of space.
- Steve Milloy