The Tragedy Of Tar Creek

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PHOTOGRAPHS FOR TIME BY STEVE LISS

LEAD'S LEGACY: Who is going to pay to remove these poison mountains?

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Tar Creek is a case in point. Two decades after it was targeted on the very first Superfund priority list, the 40-sq.-mi. site is worse off than ever. Early on, the government confined its effort to the polluted creek, without looking at chat piles, soil, air quality or the danger of subsidence. Was it a lack of knowledge of the danger, as EPA claims? Or industry influence, as environmentalists charge? Whatever the reason, federal attorneys settled with mining companies for pennies on the dollar. Now, after fruitless efforts to contain 28 billion gal. of acid mine water, contamination is spreading across a vast watershed. And although the EPA trucked out toxic dirt from about 2,000 homes and schools, Tar Creek's children still show elevated lead levels at six times the national average.

Administration officials say they are cleaning up the nation's 1,240 highest-priority sites as fast as they can. But that will be harder, since the multibillion-dollar industry-paid trust fund, set aside for abandoned sites such as Tar Creek, ran dry in October. The fund was supplied by taxes on the purchase of toxic chemicals and petroleum and on corporate profits above $2 million. But the Republican-led Congress allowed the fees to expire in 1995. Bush is the first President to oppose the levies, and last month Lautenberg and other Senate Democrats lost a narrow vote to reinstate them. In protest, the Sierra Club aired "Make Polluters Pay" TV ads in Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan — all swing states. And on April 15, tax day, activists in 25 states picketed post offices to object. "We went from polluters paying to citizens paying," says Oklahoma environmentalist Earl Hatley. "Now EPA doesn't have the money for megasites like Tar Creek."

Meanwhile, Superfund defenders in Washington are bracing for a new battle: a Bush-appointed advisory committee, which they claim is heavily stacked with corporate members, issued a report last week that pushes for administrative changes. "It is a wonky thing," says Julie Wolk of the Public Interest Research Group. "But it could dramatically weaken the program." Companies want to limit liability and shift responsibility to the states, where rules are more flexible. Federal standards are "rigid and extreme," says Michael Steinberg of the Superfund Settlements Project, an industry group that includes General Electric, DuPont and IBM. "Groundwater must meet standards for tap water, even though at many of these sites no one drinks it. Soil at many sites must be clean enough so people could play in it. The costs exceed the benefits."

With the EPA's clout slackening, private attorneys are moving in. At Tar Creek, lawyers are suing seven mining companies on behalf of scores of lead-exposed children. A separate suit demanding a cleanup was filed by the Quapaw Indians, whose land was leased for the mines. And environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has joined a class action to force companies to relocate the population of two polluted towns, Picher and Cardin. Court papers suggest that mining executives knew as early as the 1930s that the contaminated dust was dangerous but sought to, in their words, "dissuade" the government from intervening. A mining-company lawyer says the charge is based on "out-of-context reading" of historical documents.

Just how dangerous that dust might be is still a matter of dispute. Doctors at the Harvard School of Public Health have begun extensive studies in Tar Creek, not just of lead exposure but also of the cocktail mix of lead, manganese, cadmium and other metals that interact in unknown ways. "We're looking at four generations of poisoning," says Rebecca Jim of the L.E.A.D. agency, a local group. Meanwhile, parents like Evona Moss wonder what else the toxic brew might have done. Did it cause her obesity and bad teeth? Is it responsible for the malformation of her daughter's shins? Does her baby's asthma come from the chat? Her nephew's cancer? No one knows because no one has done careful, long-term studies.

Tar Creek is an extreme case. But like Tolstoy's unhappy families, every Superfund site is tragic and contentious in its own way. In Libby, Mont., a massive mine blanketed the town with asbestos dust, killing at least 215 people and sickening 1,100 more with cancer and lung disease — yet cleanup funds have been cut so sharply that it could take 10 to 15 years to finish the job. In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, miners dumped 60 million tons of toxic metals into waterways, but state officials are fighting a Superfund cleanup, fearing a stigma that might hurt tourism. In New York, General Electric, which contaminated 40 miles of the Hudson River with cancer-causing PCBs, has hired high-profile attorney Laurence Tribe to convince federal courts that the Superfund law is unconstitutional. And in New Jersey, where the rabbits frolicking around the Chemical Insecticide Corp. plant once grew green-tinged fur, cleanup funds were restored only after locals sent green plush bunnies to members of Congress.

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