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Lawmakers Band Together to Challenge EPA


Pollution from some of the nation's worst toxic sites is bad enough that two lawmakers have set aside their partisan differences.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren explains how a California Democrat and a Dakota Republican join forces over Superfund sites.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: John Thune is a conservative Republican from South Dakota. He once got top billing on the League of Conservation Voters' Dirty Dozen for voting against environmentalists' agenda. Barbara Boxer is a liberal Democrat from California, and she's one of the Senate's most outspoken environmental crusaders.

But earlier this month, the two senators sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. They're asking the EPA to do a better job of protecting people from being exposed to toxic chemicals at more than 100 Superfund sites across the country.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): Senator Boxer and I felt that this was an issue we could work together on. We don't always see eye-to-eye on issues.

SHOGREN: The two senators want to see some action quickly. They want the EPA to make it a top priority to eliminate these risks. They want to know how much money the government will spend to do that, they want timetables for cleanups, and they want all of this by the end of today.

Senator THUNE: We hope that they'll be able to give us a full explanation of what's currently being done, the plan that they have in place, timelines associated with that, funding needs, all those types of specifics.

SHOGREN: There are about 1,200 Superfund sites around the country. At about ten percent of them, toxic chemicals are seeping out into communities where people are going in and getting exposed to the hazards.

The senators say the EPA is not providing clear information about the dangers. For example, the EPA knows that at the Continental Steel Superfund site in Indiana, PCBs and other toxic chemicals have leached into nearby streams, and people who touch or swallow the water have a thousand-times greater chance of getting cancer than the agency considers safe.

And yet, the EPA told senators in a report that it hasn't made public, that there's an annual fishing clinic for children at one of the creeks.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): It says, over a thousand persons use the creeks for fishing, floating, canoeing, and wading.

SHOGREN: Senator Boxer says the EPA should be protecting people from risks like these.

Sen. BOXER: And if I were one of the people who use the creek, I would be completely distraught, and I would want to know what is being done to clean up this mess, and how long will it take. And that's the information that I would not be given.

SHOGREN: Susan Bodine heads the EPA's Superfund program. She says the agency goes into neighborhoods to warn people.

Ms. SUSAN BODINE (Superfund Program, Environmental Protection Agency): So we're out there in the community, and it's a dialogue between the EPA employees and the community. They're telling us what the exposures are and we're telling them how to avoid exposure.

SHOGREN: Bodine says when it comes to how much money the government plans to spend on future cleanups and how long they could take the EPA can't release that information. She says it would make it harder to force the companies that made the messes in the first place to pay for cleanups.

Senator Boxer believes there's another explanation.

Sen. BOXER: Keeping information from people is the way that they're handling this because they understand that the outcry would be enormous.

SHOGREN: To make her point, Senator Boxer released one example of the kind of information she says the EPA is hiding. It shows that at recent funding levels, it would take 26 years to clean up a Superfund site in New Bedford Harbor, in Massachusetts. Boxer had to get special permission to release that information. Usually, EPA officials keep those details under wraps.

Ms. BODINE: If the EPA finds an emergency - it finds an acute risk - we take action right away.

SHOGREN: EPA's Bodine says even though the agency withholds some information, it doesn't let dangerous situations linger.

Ms. BODINE: For example, if someone is drinking contaminated ground water, we'll provide alternative water supplies.

SHOGREN: The EPA says it will respond today, but it's unclear if the senators will get the information and commitments they want.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.

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