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EPA lifts ban on selling PCB sites
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has ended a 25-year-old ban on the sale of land polluted with PCBs. The ban was intended to prevent hundreds of polluted sites from being redeveloped in ways that spread the toxin or raise public health risks.

The Environmental Protection Agency decided the ban was "an unnecessary barrier to redevelopment (and) may actually delay the clean-up of contaminated properties," according to an internal memo issued last month to advise agency staff of the change.

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The decision, already in effect, has not been made public. It is being treated as a "new interpretation" of existing law, according to the memo, which was obtained by USA TODAY. As such, no public comment was required.

Some EPA staffers have raised concerns that the change could make it hard to track the sale of PCB sites and ensure that buyers don't spread contamination by developing property before it's cleaned up, EPA officials say. The decision also is likely to upset environmentalists and their congressional allies who contend that the administration is easing environmental rules to promote development.

The policy change opens a door for sales of property fouled with one of the most widespread pollutants of the post-World War II era. EPA officials and other experts estimate that more than 1,000 pieces of land nationwide are contaminated. PCBs are present at about 500 of the 1,598 pollution sites listed by the EPA as national cleanup priorities under its Superfund restoration program.

"I see real problems with the EPA and state agencies not having resources, especially in today's budget climate, to monitor these properties if they start getting transferred," says Sean Hecht, who runs UCLA's Environmental Law Center. The ban on sales "provided leverage to force people to clean up these sites."

The government believes that PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, probably cause cancer. Congress banned their sale and use beginning in 1978. The law has long been interpreted as prohibiting the sale of polluted property unless PCBs had been cleaned up.

The new interpretation was developed under EPA general counsel Robert Fabricant, who issued the Aug. 14 memo informing EPA staff.

The policy shift does not affect cleanup standards and liability rules for PCB sites. The memo says the change is needed to resolve cases in which buyers want to clean up PCB-fouled sites that are owned by people who lack the money or ability to do it.

"The new owner inherits responsibility for cleanup," EPA lawyer Bob Perlis says.

But the EPA already allowed its regional offices to waive the ban on selling PCB-contaminated land when a buyer is willing to clean it up. Regional officials say that process slowed the transfer of a few properties but generally worked.

"I didn't see a problem with the rules as they were," says Peter deFur, a PCB expert who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and consults on PCB studies and cleanups. "The question now is whether some smaller (PCB) sites will fall through the cracks."

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