The threats that toxic waste sites pose to human and environmental health are serious and urgent, and research done on Superfund site cleanup has shown that proper cleanup can mitigate the risk of serious health issues and help revitalize ailing local economies.
However, the program went bankrupt after the Polluter Pays Fees expired in 1995. With limited funds the program has limped along for decades. Today we have a chance to pass legislation that would reinstate the polluters pays fees and protect public health and the environment through a robust clean-up plan.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), more commonly known as Superfund, was passed in 1980 in response to the Love Canal disaster in New York and the Valley of the Drums in Kentucky, with the ultimate purpose of addressing the serious threat to public health that toxic waste sites pose via cleanup of the sites; the entity responsible for seeing out this purpose is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There are three main ways in which cleanup can occur: (1) the party responsible for pollution is identified and then tasked with cleaning up the site, (2) the EPA cleans up the site using money from the established trust fund and then recovers the cost incurred from cleanup from the responsible party, and (3) in orphan sites – sites where the responsible party no longer exists or has been found to no longer be liable – the EPA pays for the cost using money from the established trust fund.
When CERCLA was initially enacted, this aforementioned trust fund was created using money collected from Polluter Pays Taxes – taxes that were imposed on oil and chemical companies. In 1995, Congress allowed these taxes to expire. As a result of this expiration, this trust fund (that had at one point generated almost $2 million per year between 1993 and 1995) was completely deplete of funds by 2003. Without Polluter Pays Taxes, the Superfund program has fallen into a financial shortage and become less effective at cleaning up sites. Additionally, the program has become reliant on taxpayer dollars for funding, with the GAO reporting that 80% of Superfund costs were funded by general revenue between 1999 and 2013.
This same GAO report also outlines the ways in which the Superfund program has suffered since the fund ran out of Polluter Pays Tax money. Between 1999 and 2003, there has been a 37% decline in number of remedial action completions, an 84% decline in number of construction completions, and a significant increase in time taken to complete each project (from 2.6 years to 4 years). Based on these findings, not only are taxpayers now paying for the Superfund program, but they are paying for a less efficient Superfund program.
This program is essential to cleaning up contaminated land and mitigating exposure to toxicants, and while Scott Pruitt’s EPA has made clear that they would like to give more focus to Superfund, it’s difficult to give the Superfund program the true attention it needs without proper financial backing. Many legislators have attempted to introduce bills that would reinstate Polluter Pays Taxes, however these attempts have been so far unsuccessful. The most recent attempt made by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), entitled the Superfund Polluter Pays Restoration Act of 2017, would reinstate and raise the Hazardous Substance Superfund financing rate; no actions have been taken on this bill since its introduction.
It is urgent that everyone calls their legislators and ask them to support the Superfund program. Please take a moment today to contact your representatives and ask them to sign onto Senator Booker’s Superfund Polluter Pays Restoration Act of 2017 (S. 2198).
By Gregory Kolen II. Environmental justice is an issue that affects everyone, but those who bear the brunt of it are often the most vulnerable