Month: June 2010

Return of Superfund?

Return of Superfund?

Toxic seeps at Elizabeth Copper Mine Superfund site in Vermont (Photo: USGS)

For a decade and a half, the U.S. government’s toxic-cleanup program, Superfund, has neither been super nor much of a fund. Now, Superfund might finally earn its name again.

The federal program (known among environmental policy wonks as Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA) is supposed to clean up the country’s most toxic and complex waste sites, using money from corporate petroleum, chemical and other industries that produce toxic pollution — and the hazardous sites that land on the Superfund priorities list. But Congress let the corporate polluter fee expire in 1995, which let companies off the hook for cleanup funding and started draining Superfund’s account from $1.5 billion to virtually nil.

Superfund cleanup of asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana (Photo: US EPA)

In 2003, Grist published an essay I wrote about the sorry state of Superfund and the silly funding choices at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (The piece was originally published through High Country News wire service, Writers on the Range.) At the time, the George W. Bush White House had announced plans to spend a quick $30,000 for enviro-friendly mentions on primetime TV, but had no plans to renew industry payments to Superfund.

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Slick Mapping

Slick Mapping

The following article appears in the Summer 2010 issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine


Oil Alert

Digital Tool Helps Oil-Spill Responders Protect Alaska’s Coast

A snapshot of Sitka Shore, via Alaska ShoreZone (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

In January 2009, fierce winds in southeastern Alaska tore loose a 181-foot ferry from a pier. The ferry ran aground on a small island, and the Coast Guard and volunteers headed to the scene to limit damage from a possible fuel spill. Before they arrived, the responders knew which sensitive tidelands and critical fisheries habitats were threatened, thanks to a set of new high-tech digital maps that provide a bird’s-eye view of Alaska’s coast.

The mapping project, Alaska ShoreZone, currently covers 17,000 miles of the state’s roughly 47,000-mile coastline, including areas such as Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound—the site of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. More than 30 organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and state and tribal agencies, have worked together on the program since 2001, sharing $5.5 million in funds and plenty of expertise.

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