Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Superfund program loses funding, momentum

Since 2000, the EPA has engaged in two-thirds fewer clean-ups near hazardous waste sites

Introduction

A 2007 Center for Public Integrity investigation found that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund program had lost critical momentum and massive amounts of funding since the turn of the century, bringing further risk to the quarter of the nation’s population living within three miles of a hazardous waste site. The Center found the start rate for site cleanups from 2001 to 2006 had fallen by two-thirds from the previous six-year period, and while EPA completed construction work at an average of 79 sites per year from 1995 through 2000, that rate dropped to an average of 42 per year from 2001 to 2006. Officials argued this was due to the increased complexity of newer sites after previous cleanups picked the “low-hanging fruit,” but that failed to explain the decline in money retrieved from industry to reimburse EPA for cleanups — from more than $300 million in 1999 to just about $60 million in 2006. When Congress created the Superfund program in 1980, lawmakers established a trust fund supported by a tax on petroleum products and chemicals, and enabled EPA to push responsible parties to reimburse the agency after cleanups. The Superfund tax comprised more than two-thirds of that trust fund until 1995, when Congress allowed the tax to expire. After that, the bulk of trust fund money came from Congressional appropriations, which have been declining when adjusted for inflation. As a result, the trust fund balance declined from $4.7 billion at the start of fiscal year 1997 to $173 million at the start of fiscal year 2007. Experts said the erosion of the trust fund meant the agency no longer had the money to clean up sites first and stick industry with the bill afterward. Also, the Center reported that a policy change in 2000 led to a rise in what are called site-specific accounts, which collect millions of dollars from polluters for exclusive rather than general fund use. That move, combined with bankruptcies and a dwindling trust fund, left hundreds of so-called “orphan” sites without adequate funding to clean up the mess. Some lawmakers who oppose more funding argued that soaring administrative costs were to blame for Superfund’s woes, but a 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report challenged those claims, and found that total Superfund expenditures fell 29 percent since 1999. The funding fell despite the fact that 114 toxic waste sites found within 10 miles of 25 million Americans were determined by EPA to be “not under control” in 2007 — with dangerous and occasionally carcinogenic substances threatening the public by poisoning the soil, water, or air. The EPA press office did not respond to a request for comment, but the head of its Superfund program told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in August 2007 that “EPA funded all new cleanup construction projects that were ready for construction funding” in 2007, after subjecting them to a “rigorous prioritization project.”

Follow-up:
Efforts to reintroduce the Superfund tax have failed in recent sessions of Congress, and Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, admitted in 2008 that she did not then have the votes for such a measure. House Democrats introduced a bill in 2007 and Senate Democrats introduced a Polluter Pays Act in 2008, but neither attempt left committee. GAO’s presidential transition report revisited the Superfund problem and offered a number of recommendations for the next administration; most prominently, the report recommended that EPA push harder to assure that firms handling hazardous substances demonstrate their ability to pay for possible environmental cleanups. In November, the EPA announced that in FY 2008 it completed construction at 30 sites and recovered $232 million for past work. The agency cited additional accomplishments, such as securing $1.9 billion in private party commitments, but said it was not able to fund all new projects ready for construction.

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