Editorials

Superfund, no longer such a super fund

Heavy equipment moves contaminated dirt at the site of the old Ward Transformer facility near the RDU Airport in Raleigh Tuesday afternoon August 5th, 2008. The site is a Superfund cleanup site; about 150,000 tons of ground were soiled by the PCB's in the transformers. Contaminated soil is dug up and heated in a giant industrial dryer, causing the pollutants to vaporize. In a second step, the PCB vapors are destroyed in an afterburner and the gases scrubbed and vented through the stack.
Heavy equipment moves contaminated dirt at the site of the old Ward Transformer facility near the RDU Airport in Raleigh Tuesday afternoon August 5th, 2008. The site is a Superfund cleanup site; about 150,000 tons of ground were soiled by the PCB's in the transformers. Contaminated soil is dug up and heated in a giant industrial dryer, causing the pollutants to vaporize. In a second step, the PCB vapors are destroyed in an afterburner and the gases scrubbed and vented through the stack. News & Observer file photo

Oh, the Superfund program created in 1980 was a very good idea. Industries and businesses would be held accountable, through taxes, for polluting communities all over the United States. Those taxes – paid by landfill owners, chemical companies and industrial manufacturers – paid for cleanups of polluted sites, an often expensive proposition.

We know just how expensive because since the Superfund taxes expired in 1995, the cleanup and oversight costs for waste-polluted properties have run to more than $21 billion. And the money’s easy to track because it’s been paid by – you guessed it – taxpayers. Many hundreds of companies responsible for the contamination of water have paid nothing, because they’re out of business, they can’t be identified because of a change in ownership or oversight or they just can’t afford to pay for the cleanup.

So the tab goes to the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning to all Americans. The ones who do pay taxes.

This report on the Superfund program came from Carnegie-Knight News21, a national investigative reporting project out of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

This is a classic case of a good program failing to get the job done because the taxes that supported it were allowed to expire in 1995, and while this will doubtless shock Americans, members of Congress didn’t have the courage, political or personal, to support restarting the taxes. Christine Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, supports the reinstatement of taxes but says, “It was something for which Congress had no appetite. They just were not willing to consider anything that had the word ‘tax’ in it.”

That is of course a ridiculous irony: No law to put taxes on businesses that may be responsible for pollution, sometimes for absolutely horrendous pollution affecting thousands of acres and thousands of people – a chemical spill, for example – but a willingness to let average taxpayers pay the bills for offending industries.

And President Trump, of course, has actually proposed cuts in the Superfund program as it currently exists in an already anemic form.

The types of substances that can be involved in environmental spills of the type that the Superfund program is designed to clean up include, News21 reported, chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and infertility. And Census data shows that 53 million Americans live within 3 miles of a Superfund remedial site.

With less money in the program, what cleanups there are move more slowly, which means risks from environmental spills last longer.

The Superfund taxes should be reinstated. President Trump’s allies in the business world, such as they are, would howl, of course, but average Americans would support the idea – and more than 50 million of them are within 3 miles of a site, for goodness sakes.

For them, and for millions of other people likely to be affected in the future, as the risks from relaxed environmental regulations under Trump become greater, this is an issue that must be addressed with an urgency justified by the risks already looming for millions.

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