By Sharon Franklin
On January 2, 2020, Ellen Knickmeyer, Matthew Brow and Ed White of the Associated Press, reported that the Trump Administration has built up the biggest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund Sites. There are 34 sites that are “shovel ready” to be cleaned up, only the agency does not have the funds to do it. The 2019 figures were quietly released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the winter holidays. CHEJ has been asking for this list since July of last year.
Congress created the Superfund program in 1980 after the Love Canal episode and other notorious pollution cases to provide funds to pay for cleanup of abandoned contaminated sites where no responsible party was identified. The intent was to hold polluters responsible for cleanup costs or provide taxpayer money when no responsible party can be identified. The trust fund was financed by fees, referred to as the “Polluter Pays Fees,” that were charged to companies that used hazardous chemicals. Unfortunately, EPA stopped collecting the fees in 1995 and the fund ran out in 2003. Since that time, the cleanup of Superfund sites has been paid for by the American taxpayers. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) has prepared a bill to reinstate the fees, but he has not yet introduced the bill to Congress.
Meanwhile, communities like St. Clair Shores, Michigan are not getting their Superfund site cleaned up. Violet Donoghue, a resident of St. Clair Shores said, “There hasn’t been a sense of urgency.” She further said the-at the last word from EPA was that soil would be removed from the front of her house. “Now when they say they’re cleaning it, I say, ‘OK, give me the date’”. Meanwhile, toxic PCBs have poisoned some local soil, water and fish. St. Clair is one of the 34 Superfund sites where cleanup projects have languished for lack of funding in 2019.
In early 2019, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told a Senate environment committee, “We are in the process of cleaning up some of the nation’s largest, most complex sites and returning them to productive use.” However, this does not include the 34 unfunded projects in 17 states and Puerto Rico as noted by two former EPA officials who worked on Superfund. “They’re misleading Congress and the public about the funds that are needed to really protect the public from exposure to the toxic chemicals,” said Elizabeth Southerland former Director of Science and Technology in the Water Office. Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Northeastern Administrator called the unfunded sites a “regulatory failure.”
When the EPA was asked how funds were spent, and why the agency didn’t ask Congress for more funding to deal with the growing backlog, EPA spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage stated that EPA’s Superfund program “will continue to prioritize new construction projects based on which sites present the greatest risk to human health and the environment.” Sauerhage also stated in an email, “Further, the agency maintains the authority to respond to and fund emergencies at these sites if there is an imminent threat to human health and the environment.” EPA did not directly respond to questions about the backlog of 34 unfunded Superfund cleanup projects which was posted on its website on December 26, 2019. The information about these sites can be found here.
The large number of unfunded sites makes clear the need to introduce Pallone’s bill to Congress and to reinstate the polluter pays fees.
Photo Credit: 2015 The Macomb Daily File Photo Clinton Township, MI