Week of 12/21/2003

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly is the "Superfund" law?
—Jill Horn, Bozeman, MT

Congress established the Superfund Program, also called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), in 1980 to locate, investigate, and clean up the thousands of hazardous waste sites created by industry, mining, and military activity over the past several decades. This Superfund law also created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries responsible for pollution. The tax was the basis of a trust fund of $1.6 billion over five years to fund cleanup projects. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA), enacted in1986, added an additional $8.5 over the next five years. In 1994 $5.1 billion was authorized.

Superfund authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to negotiate with parties that helped create hazardous waste sites, known as potentially responsible parties, to get them to clean up the sites. If those parties refuse to cooperate, EPA can order them to conduct the cleanup, or EPA can conduct the cleanup using money from the Superfund Trust Fund. The fund can also be used when responsible parties cannot be identified. Regardless of how the cleanup is conducted, CERCLA also gives EPA the authority to take legal action to recover any costs it incurs as part of the response effort, according to the EPA

A similar law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), ensures that industry is held accountable from creation to destruction of their waste material. The law sets stringent guidelines that regulate the generation, transportation, storage and disposal of chemicals.

According to the Sierra Club, since the Superfund tax expired in 1995, industry has saved $10 billion and citizen taxpayers have had to pay a greater share of cleanup costs. The trust fund has been reduced from a high of about $3.7 billion in fiscal year 1996, to about $400 million in fiscal year 2002, according to EPA. The fund is expected to be depleted by the end of the fiscal year 2004. EPA estimates that more than 112,000 sites still need to be cleaned up at a cost of billions of dollars. Since 1996, the Superfund Program had completed cleanup work on about 86 contaminated sites each year. This number has dropped by almost 40 percent under the Bush administration.

The Sierra Club is advocating for a reauthorization of the tax. "Preliminary estimates show that reinstating the Superfund tax would generate $15 billion to $16 billion over the next 10 years which is enough to cover the costs of cleanups for the next decade," according to its Web site.

CONTACT: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (800) 424-9346 (RCRA, Superfund and The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act Call Center), www.epa.gov/superfund; Sierra Club, 85 Second Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105, (415) 977-5500, www.sierraclub.org/toxics/superfund, jessica.frohman@sierraclub.org

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Do birdfeeders prevent birds from migrating in the winter? —Melissa Hildebrant, New Haven, CT

Despite common beliefs, there is no evidence that feeding wild birds changes their migratory patterns or makes them in any way more dependent on people, according to John Bianchi, a spokesperson for the National Audubon Society." A bird’s migratory urge is primarily triggered by day length, and even a hearty appetite won’t make a bird resist that urge.

+3/44*g??nter at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology concurs. "For most species, migration patterns are hard wired." he says. Food resources do not seem to be a factor in migration habits. "Most warblers leave right after their breeding season, in August, when there are still abundant food resources, but the days are getting shorter," he says. Studies show that even in four feet of snow, birds will get only a small portion of their food from your feeder anyway, and forage for the rest.

While bird feeders won’t make a huge difference in migration patterns, they can’t hurt. Yard bird feeders, particularly in winter, help both native and migrating birds whose feeding opportunities are compromised by snow, as well as development, pollution, pesticides, and the widespread planting of non-native vegetation, says Bianchi. Migration is responsible for the bulk of adult bird mortality, according to Bonter. Flying hundreds of miles requires significant energy and birds need to bulk up before they go, or they may not make it. The National Bird-Feeding Society has deemed February National Bird Feeding Month, in recognition of the hard times winter holds for birds. As the Society points out, birds can use up 20 percent of their body weight just to stay warm overnight and spend most of their waking hours looking for food. Plus, "people who feed birds often become good stewards of the land," says Allison Wells, communication and outreach director at Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

CONTACT: National Audubon Society, 700 Broadway, New York, NY 10003, (212) 979-3000, www.audubon.org, education@audubon.org; Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY 14850, (800) 843-2473, www.birds.cornell.edu, cornellbirds@cornell.edu; National Bird-Feeding Society, PO Box 23 Northbrook, IL 60065, (941) 962-4584, www.birdfeeding.org