WHO SHOULD PAY to clean up Superfund sites? In January, a group of senators proposed an answer by introducing the Toxic Cleanup Polluter Pays Renewal Act. The legislation would reauthorize a Superfund tax on industries that generate hazardous chemicals.
Congress has considered versions of this legislation for years. Sponsored by Sens. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., and others, the current bill (S. 173) would reinstate a tax, which expired in 1995, on the chemical and oil industries. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., introduced similar legislation (H.R. 610) in the House in February.
H.R. 610 would amend a 1986 Internal Revenue code to extend the taxes funding the Hazardous Substances Superfund and the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. The legislation also would extend the taxes funding the Leaking Underground Storage Trust Fund.
Money collected from the tax in S. 173 would go into a trust fund that would be used to cleanup Superfund sites for which no responsible party is identified.
Since the Superfund tax expired, the trust fund has been reduced from a high of approximately $3.7 billion in fiscal year 1996, to $400 million in fiscal year 2002, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C.
Boxer estimates that taxpayers now contribute approximately 53 percent of the revenue that is tapped for cleanups. Seven years ago, according to Boxer, taxpayers provided only 18 percent of the funding.
S. 173 would “restore fees on oil, chemical and other industries to ensure that the Superfund Trust Fund is solvent and that polluters, not American taxpayers, bear the burden of cleaning up sites that pose a threat to the health and safety of our communities,” Boxer says.
The Superfund program was created in 1980, and more than 800 sites have been cleaned up, reaching a high of 87 cleanups a year, according to Boxer. “The pace of cleanups has slowed to a crawl. Less than half the 87 National Priority List sites per year are now being cleaned up. In 2002, only 42 sites were cleaned up.”
Yet the legislation may have little likelihood of passing without an overhaul of the Superfund program, says Bill Sells, director of federal relations for the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA), Washington, D.C. So far, legislative efforts to overhaul the program, especially regarding liability and cleanup standards, have been unsuccessful.
The White House points out the foundation of the program's problems: “The Superfund program has not been as successful as it should be because, too often, Superfund cleanups become a matter between lawyers and not a matter between cleanup crews,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in a February press briefing. “That's where the Superfund program has languished, and that's why there was bipartisan opposition to reauthorizing the Superfund program without reform.”
At press time, the bills were awaiting action by the appropriate committees.