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EPA Sweep Includes Sites Near Schools

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From lead-filled soil to polluted water to landfills, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 68 Superfund sites in or around schools that have yet to be completely cleaned up.

According to the EPA:

  • In the mountains of Mintern, Colo., a middle school sits next to lead-contaminated wetlands that served as a dumping ground for mining operations in the 1850s.
  • Summer classes were halted in one Florida school this year after a nearby chemical company leaked elemental phosphorous into the air, setting off mini-explosions.
  • In Gaston County, N.C., a school was hooked up to the city's water system after a dry cleaning operation chucked chemical waste into local wells, polluting what had been the school's water supply.

"Hazardous-waste sites are a blight on the communities, and we need to get these under control," says Lauren Mical, an EPA spokeswoman, who adds that, as well as potential hazards near schools, 10 million children in the United States live within four miles of a toxic-waste dump.

Not everyone is as alarmed by that prospect as the EPA, though.

Sometimes people overestimate environmental threats, says Kenneth Green, the director of environmental studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank.

"Unless kids are getting into the Superfund site or there are chemicals that can migrate to where the children are, the chances of risk from that event are very, very low," he says.

In an effort to prevent children from being exposed to potential hazards in the first place, EPA Administrator Carol Browner established the agency's first office of children's health earlier this year to focus her agency's efforts on the risk to children from hazardous-waste sites and to educate the public on how to prevent exposure to toxic materials.

Children and infants are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards, child-health experts say. They may be more susceptible to the negative effects of air pollution, for example, because they breathe much faster than adults and can take in more contaminated air, according to Dr. Ruth Etzel, the chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on environmental health.

Dr. Etzel, a pediatrician, adds that, because of their small stature, infants and children are more likely to inhale chemicals such as mercury that are heavier than air and linger closer to the ground. Because they are still growing, children also tend to drink and eat more than adults relative to their size and are, therefore, prone to ingesting a greater proportion of food or water-borne impurities, she says.

"Hopefully, increased awareness of how children differ from adults will lead to more prevention of environmental problems," Dr. Etzel says.

Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, giving the EPA the authority to regulate hazardous waste and issue rules on its treatment and storage. In 1980, Congress established the Superfund program, through which the EPA has overseen the cleanup of 493 Superfund sites.

Many of the contaminated areas developed as a result of past ignorance about the harmful effects of certain materials, the EPA says. The remaining sites were brought about by violations of dumping codes or environmental accidents. The EPA pays for cleanup efforts when the parties are bankrupt or defunct, but in 75 percent of the Superfund sites, the responsible party foots the bill.

Ms. Browner pledged this year to accelerate the pace of the cleanup effort and to complete work on 900 of the 1,206 existing Superfund sites by the end of 2000. The Clinton administration had requested $2.1 billion from Congress this year--a 50 percent increase in the Superfund program's budget--to accomplish that task.

But earlier this month the House and Senate approved an appropriations bill that would provide only $1.5 billion for the Superfund program. The bill was awaiting President Clinton's signature last week.

Some critics in Congress voted against fully funding the Superfund program, because they consider it bloated and inefficient. Projects take too long, and are too expensive and bureaucratic, say some congressional critics who may lead an effort to overhaul the Superfund program later this year.

"Projects to clean toxic-waste sites haven't been completed because [the EPA] has unreasonable and unrealistic standards," said James Wilcox, a spokesman for Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

EPA officials said this month that they will continue their accelerated pace of eradicating environmental hazards, particularly those near schools, while Congress debates the program's fate.

"We are going to clean up as many as we can," Ms. Mical said.

--JESSICA PORTNER

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