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Behind the EPA’s high cleanup costs

Montana vs. the feds


The massive waste associated with the Bunker Hill Superfund site in Idaho’s Silver Valley is the result of a century’s worth of mining, not bureaucratic ineptitude, a government report concluded recently.

On March 28, the U.S. General Accounting Office released the results of its investigation of the Bunker Hill Superfund site cleanup by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), launched at the request of members of the Idaho’s Congressional delegation. That investigation determined that cost overruns at the Bunker Hill project, the nation’s second-largest Superfund site, are due primarily to underestimated amounts of contamination in the area, greater-than-anticipated costs for maintenance and security, floods that re-contaminated previously cleaned-up areas, and the site’s massive size and complexity.

In 1983, the EPA listed Bunker Hill on the National Priorities List—the agency’s list of the nation’s worst contaminated sites—because contamination throughout the region posed a significant risk to human health and the environment. Thus far, the EPA has focused its cleanup efforts on a 21-square mile area referred to as “the box,” although contamination is believed to have spread throughout much of the Coeur d’Alene River basin.

Members of Idaho’s Congressional delegation, including Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, have long been critical of the EPA’s cleanup efforts in the area. In October, Chenoweth-Hage issued a scathing 57-page report lambasting the EPA cleanup effort as “a prime example of unchecked governmental abuse and waste of taxpayer resources.”

The EPA and the State of Idaho expect that the Bunker Hill cleanup will be completed by the end of 2002 at a cost of $140 million, about $14 million more than the initial estimate. But at least some of those cost overruns are due to the bankruptcies of mining companies who were responsible for some of the cleanup costs.

However, EPA National Ombudsman Robert Martin announced recently that he is reopening his investigation of the EPA’s handling of the Bunker Hill cleanup. The ombudsman’s office had been investigating about two dozen EPA cleanup sites around the country—including Bunker Hill and the Alberton train derailment—until new guidelines imposed in the final days of the Clinton administration effectively put those investigations on hold.

Martin’s decision to reopen the Bunker Hill investigation could bode well for victims of the 1996 Alberton derailment, many of whom have argued that the EPA botched its handling of that cleanup effort.


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