Neighborhood evacuations are over, folks will be returning home, and officials say the risk of immediate catastrophe has lowered.  The state of emergency, however, still holds for the Piney Point wastewater situation.  The reservoir continues to leak, which is not a long-term solution.  And ecological concerns grow as about 165 million gallons of wastewater are pumped into Tampa Bay.  There will be costs for repairs and clean-up, and it won’t be cheap.  Who pays these bills?      

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Wastewater being pumped into a drainage ditch on its way to Tamp Bay. Photo by Douglas R. Clifford, Tampa Bay Times via AP and USA Today.

A previous blog described Piney Point as a legacy site.  In short, these are mines and industrial sites that have experienced decline and abandonment.  Frequent change of ownership causes difficulties for tracking down responsible parties; some of these companies may not even exist today.  In 1980, the US created the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund program, or “Superfund.”  It is administered by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the intent is to investigate and clean-up these abandoned, hazardous sites.  

And Superfund has worked.  The Eastland Woolen Textile Mill in Corrinna, Maine, is an example of a successful Superfund site.  Soil and groundwater were contaminated on site as well as some contamination in a nearby river and private drinking water wells.  The site is now a housing facility.  (Read about other successes here.)  Despite success, many observe the process to be slow and in need of more financial support.  

Superfund is not entirely funded by the US federal government i.e. taxpayer dollars.  About 70% has been paid for by potentially responsible parties and taxpayers pay for the rest.  To give you an idea of general costs, Superfund’s budget is just under $1.2 billion.  Note that is half of what it was in 1999 –  $2.3 billion and much less than the peak of ~$4.7 billion. 

“When something gets on a Superfund site, that doesn’t mean it instantly and magically gets cleaned up… [h]aving money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer.”

Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin

While this sounds like a lot of money, consider that there are 40,000 Superfund sites, of which 1,600 are on the National Priorities List.  The NPL contains sites that are more highly contaminated and require longer-term clean-up.  One NPL site is in our own backyard – Carson River Mercury Superfund Site.    

Lack of funding kept 34 clean-up projects from starting in 2019.  Numerous sources, including the EPA, identify lack of funding as an honest problem.  This could become an issue in Florida.  The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Governor have indicated that they intend to hold Piney Point owners accountable.  But what if the owners can’t be found or don’t have enough money?  Presumably Superfund will intervene.  If it has enough money. 

Find out more about Superfund and the call to fund it adequately and help it work more efficiently.