In Our View: Clean Up Your Mess

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It is a simple exhortation, one heard frequently as a rite of childhood: Clean up your mess.

And while the lesson is a basic part of living in a civilized society, it too often is ignored by industries, governments and politicians in this country. In short, America does a poor job of cleaning up its messes, and that embarrassing truth is represented by the ongoing saga of a Superfund site in Hazel Dell.

After decades of work at the former sites of Boomsnub Chrome & Grind and Airco Gases along Northeast 47th Avenue, the cleanup is nearing completion. Well, nearing completion is a relative term, considering that the work is expected to be finished in five years. Yet the good news is that slow-but-steady progress is being made.

At issue is hexavalent chromium and volatile organic compounds that had seeped into the groundwater beneath the site. In the 1990s, the area was deemed a toxic Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency, a status that gave it high priority on the list of cleanup projects.

The problem is that the United States demonstrates little concern about its messes. In 1980, after decades of nearly unfettered industrial waste infecting the nation’s water and air, Congress dedicated a fund to clean up the most hazardous sites. Until the mid-1990s, most of the money for the fund came from a tax on the petroleum and chemical industries, but since 1995 Congress has declined to reauthorize those taxes. The Superfund ran out of money in 2003, and since then taxpayers have footed the entire bill for industries that are disinclined to pay for cleanup — like Boomsnub’s parent company, which promised $2 million toward cleanup but then reneged when it declared bankruptcy. It often is more profitable for a company to declare bankruptcy and leave an area rather than demonstrate environmental responsibility.

Meanwhile, congressional support for the Superfund has been slashed over the years, slowing progress on cleanup efforts and leading to projects that take decades to complete. In other words, taxpayers are subsidizing polluting companies, and cleanup projects have been hampered.

Such is the case at the Hazel Dell site, where as of 2013 workers had removed 22,264 pounds of chromium. This is significant yet inadequate. Hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen that most commonly targets the lungs, kidneys, liver, skin and eyes, and it came to the public’s attention as the cancer-causing substance in question in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich.” Judy Smith, the EPA’s community involvement coordinator for the site, told The Columbian: “We’ve made great progress in reducing both the amount and the area that the contamination has covered. We’re actually to the point where the groundwater treatment system is pumping a lot of clean water to get at the contamination.”

While small victories are to be celebrated, the situation is an indictment of Congress’ inattention. Efforts over the years to re-establish a tax to support the Superfund have been fruitless, with lawmakers capitulating to polluting industries rather than heeding the health concerns of the populace. Most recently, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., reintroduced a bill to rekindle the tax, and it is telling that an assessment from GovTrack.us gives it a 0 percent chance of being passed by Congress.

That represents an ongoing embarrassment for this nation and its reluctance to clean up its messes — even when those messes are a toxic health hazard.