After suffering years of neglect at the hands of the Bush Administration and conservatives in Congress, Superfund may be on the verge of springing back to life. That at least is the objective of a new proposal from President Obama, included in his recent budget outline, calling for the reinstatement of a tax on polluting industries to fund toxic waste cleanup efforts.
Congress created Superfund in 1980, responding to national furor over the toxically infamous Love Canal. Its mission was to clean up such toxic waste sites across the nation, first identifying sites in need of cleanup, then prioritizing them, then forcing the relevant polluters to clean up their mess, or, if no polluters could be identified or made to take responsibility, paying for the cleanup. The bill for this latter set of cleanups was to be footed by a multi-billion dollar trust fund (hence, Superfund), supported by a tax on polluting industries – oil and chemical, chiefly.
Let’s be clear about the scope of the problem. Through the end of 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers Superfund, had identified more than 47,000 sites across the nation in potential need of a cleanup. EPA put more than 1,500 of these sites on Superfund’s National Priorities List, targeting them for cleanup. By EPA’s estimate, one in four Americans lives within three miles of a Superfund site, and approximately 3 to 4 million children live within one mile, putting them at risk of developmental problems from exposure to environmental contaminants.
Toxic waste doesn’t clean up easily, so efforts at individual sites usually take years. Cleanups are sometimes complex, and usually expensive, and responsible parties that EPA can compel to take responsibility are not always in evidence. They may be identifiable, but bankrupt, for example. Throughout the Clinton years, Superfund plugged along, slowly but surely making progress on cleaning up sites. In each of the last four years of the Clinton Administration, EPA brought between 85 and 88 Superfund sites to the all-important “construction complete” stage, “when all physical construction at a site is complete, all immediate threats have been addressed, and all long-term threats are under control.”
But the Clinton EPA’s persistence masked a long-term problem, one of deliberate creation. In 1995, the Gingrich majority in Congress – newly elected and full of energy – did its industry friends a big favor: they let lapse the authorization for the tax on polluting industries. Ever since then, Superfund has been running short of cash, and forced to rely on direct appropriations to function, usually from a Congress not so much interested in providing them. According to the Government Accountability Office, “the balance of the trust fund…declined from $4.7 billion at the start of fiscal year 1997 to $173 million at the start of fiscal year 2007.” Indeed, by 2004, the trust fund was entirely dependent upon direct appropriation from Congress – that is to say, taxpayer dollars – thus turning on its head the foundational principle of Superfund – that polluters pay for cleanup. (See the chart on page 3 of this GAO document.)
During the Bush years, Superfund’s accumulating cash crisis was compounded by the Administration’s apparent disinterest in making progress. The Administration never asked Congress to reinstate the polluter tax, and allowed cleanups to slow to a crawl. According to The Toll of Superfund Neglect: Toxic Waste Dumps & Communities at Risk, a 2006 report from the Center for Progressive Reform and the Center for American Progress, the annual rate of Superfund cleanups fell by more than 50 percent under the Bush Administration.
But the free ride for polluters may be near an end. In the outline of his 2009 budget proposal, President Obama calls for the reinstatement of the polluter tax, a move that would presumably allow EPA to quicken the pace of cleanup, put the burden of paying for cleanups back where it belongs – on polluters, and save taxpayers the burden of footing the bill.
The President’s budget must travel a long path before it is adopted, and opposition is already lining up from a host of special interests. In all likelihood, the oil and chemical industries will take a whack at the Superfund polluter tax as the proposal works its way through Congress. But President Obama has taken the critical and wholly responsible first step toward reinvigorating this program so crucial to the health of so many children.