The Cost of Superfund Myths

The spin doctors have been hard at work on the EPA’s Superfund Program. The result is that the public and many lawmakers are misinformed about how the program works, along with the continued need for the program.

Last week, Professor Rena Steinzor of the University of Maryland School of Law testified at a Senate oversight hearing examining the Superfund Program. Steinzor described the “five Superfund legends that have little relationship to history or reality:”

1. Few if any sites endanger public health.
2. Because EPA has only recently gotten down to the worst, most complex sites, cleanup has slowed, with the construction phase of remedial action completed at only 24 sites in 2007, as compared to 87 sites in 2000.
3. EPA has enough money without renewal of the Superfund tax.
4. Superfund taxes are onerous.
5. Companies that created the sites are paying to clean them up.

That’s not reality, of course, as Steinzor went on to explain:

The truth is that Superfund’s creators intended it to be a three-legged stool:

1. systematic identification and prioritization of abandoned toxic waste sites all over the country that require cleanup;
2. creation of a multi-billion dollar fund supported by industry taxes to both prime the pump for cleanup and pay for so-called “orphan” sites; and
3. strict, joint, and several liability that gives responsible parties that created the sites compelling incentives to clean them up and allows government to recover most of the money spent upfront.

Over the last several years, EPA’s political leadership has sawed the first leg in half, removed the second leg, and left the third leg to rot to its core. No wonder the program is in trouble.

The assertion that long-neglected Superfund sites are not harming anybody and can safely be neglected is ludicrous. Indeed, if the people who advance this legend believe it to be true, we would have a more honest debate if we discussed whether we could safely wind down Superfund, ending the program within some fixed timeline. No one wants to go there, and for good reason.

Thousands of uncontrolled federal and state Superfund sites plague communities across the nation. Our report offers a snapshot of these conditions. Most of the 50 sites we studied are located in heavily populated urban or suburban neighborhoods. Many have languished on the Superfund National Priorities List for two decades. Often no more than holes in the ground, they leak toxic soups comprised of hundreds of chemicals into the air, soil, or water, including PCBs, creosote, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chromium, copper, zinc, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, and trichloroethylene. The sites sit atop aquifers used for drinking water, leak toxic chemicals into rivers and streams used for swimming and recreation, contaminate soil where children play with hazardous wastes, and in one particularly tragic and egregious case, provide the foundation for an apartment building that is still occupied.

The second legend, contending that cleanup has slowed because EPA did the easy sites first, is half true. It is difficult to complete cleanup at the biggest, most contaminated sites, such as (1) the Operating Industries site, a 190-acre municipal landfill in the Los Angeles suburbs where millions of gallons of liquid hazardous waste was poured over densely packed household garbage, producing leachate that contains vinyl chloride, benzene tetrachoroethylene, and heavy metals or (2) the 160-acre Lawrence Aviation Industries site in Suffolk County, New York, where the owner poured unknown quantities of TCE and acid sludges onto the ground and into two unlined lagoons.

But up until a few years ago, our government rolled up its sleeves and deployed the complicated technology and significant resources that are required to get difficult jobs done. Agencies in charge of such efforts did not come to Congress demanding fewer resources as these challenges became more daunting, as EPA now does.

This bizarre development brings us to the third legend: EPA has all the money it needs to complete cleanup. The broad-based industry taxes that support the program expired in 1995. President Clinton asked Congress to extend them every year he was in office, and every year, the Congress refused the request. The Bush Administration opposes extension of the tax and has made up chronic shortfalls by drawing on general taxpayer revenues and steadily lowering annual appropriations. In FY 2003, EPA ran through all the money left over from the years when the program was supported by industry taxes and the program has been exclusively supported by general revenues ever since.

Not only are the wrong people paying to support a program that is starved for resources, crucial tasks are increasingly left undone. In constant dollars, revenues appropriated for the Superfund program now stand at levels 40 percent lower than the amounts Congress specified when it last reauthorized the program in 1986.

Much of the material in Steinzor’s testimony was originally compiled in a 2006 report The Toll of Superfund Neglect: Toxic Waste Dumps & Communities at Risk written by Steinzor and Margaret Clune, issued by Steinzor’s Center for Progressive Reform and the Center for American Progress. A table in the report’s first appendix provides details about the populations living near 50 Superfund sites, and the median income figures are particularly striking. Subcommittee Chair Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton highlighted this aspect of the 50 sites in her opening statement:

Sixty percent are located in neighborhoods where households reported median incomes in the range of $40,000, and some 26 percent were in the midst of populations comprised of 40 percent or more of racial or ethnic minorities. So, this is both an environmental health issue and an environmental justice issue.

With the pace of Superfund site cleanup slowing, taxpayers are bearing more of the financial costs, and residents who can least afford it are stuck shouldering the costs to their health and quality of life. It’s time to recognize the truth about how much work still needs to be done on Superfund sites, and make sure EPA gets the funding to right these toxic wrongs.