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Funding Woes Plague Superfund Clean Up

by J.R. Pegg

Bush Kills Off Superfund Cleanup
(ENS) WASHINGTON, DC -- The federal government is failing to fully fund the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund program and 42 percent of Superfund clean up efforts could be slowed down or stopped as a result, environmentalists say.

A new report released August 7 by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) blames the Bush administration for cuts to the Superfund budget and Congress for shifting the burden of clean up from polluters to the American taxpayer.

"Not only has the pace of cleanups slowed down dramatically in the past three years, but regular taxpayers are footing more and more of the bill for toxic cleanups," said Julie Wolk, the report's lead author and an environmental health advocate for PIRG.

Wolk says that in the late 1990s, the EPA cleaned up an average of 86 Superfund sites a year, but it only cleaned up 42 sites in 2002 and expects to clean up 40 sites this year.

The slowdown in clean up leaves "millions of Americans remain at risk of chemical exposure and disease," Wolk said.

EPA spokesman David Ryan said PIRG's report is "ludicrous" and does not fairly represent the budget process for the program nor the extent of the agency's efforts.

"The administration is very committed to funding Superfund to protect health of the American public," Ryan told ENS.

Seventy million people, including some 10 million children, live within four miles of the nation's more than 1,230 Superfund sites. Children are most vulnerable to the arsenic, DDT and brain-damaging toxins like lead and mercury that are found in the water and soil at these locations.

EPA Acting Administrator Marianne Horinko announced 20 new Superfund sites last month but acknowledged that only 11 would be funded in the coming fiscal year. She says any sites not receiving funding do not pose immediate risks to human health and will be considered for funding next year.

Horinko, former head of the EPA office that oversees Superfund, says that the agency's ability to start cleanups at new sites more constrained today than in the past, even though appropriations for the program have remained in the area of $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion since 1995.

The budget for the Superfund program goes to much more than just cleanup, Ryan explained, including emergency removals, site assessment, site cleanup, enforcement, and administration. In her announcement in July, Horinko said the agency would spend $277 million this fiscal year on clean up efforts.

"Our first priority is to continue work on sites where cleanup has already begun," Horinko said in July. "Ongoing cleanup work, which can take decades, is eating up a big chunk of the money available."

This year some 40 percent of EPA's Superfund cleanup budget is dedicated to eight, complex Superfund sites, according to the agency.

Horinko gave no additional information about funding for the hundreds of sites around the nation with ongoing clean up, but Ryan says "all ongoing clean up projects are going to get some funding."

The administration is "keeping the public in the dark," says Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

A 2001 study by the non profit research group Resources for the Future determined that the Superfund program needs annual funding of between $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion. Using these figures, PIRG's report says that the Bush administration has under funded the Superfund program by some $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion from 2001 through 2004.

This means that some 522 Superfund sites in 48 states and the U.S. territories -- representing 42 percent of all Superfund sites -- may be subject to a delayed cleanup or less stringent EPA oversight of cleanup activities conducted by polluters, Wolk says.

New Jersey has the most potentially affected sites with 78. New York has 49 and Pennsylvania and California each have 37 sites potentially affected, according to PIRG.

The report blasts the administration and the U.S. Congress for opposing the collection of polluter pays fees, a policy that has increased the share of the program's costs carried by the federal government from 18 percent in 1995 to a proposed 79 percent or more in 2004.

This is not the way the Superfund program was designed to work, but the program has been wrought with problems for much of its life.

Started in 1980 as a relatively short term project to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites, the program has expanded as tens of thousands of waste sites have been discovered.

Many of these sites are owned by the federal government, and cleaning them up has proved to be far more complicated and costly than anticipated. But the sites that are not owned by the federal government are to either be cleaned up by the private parties responsible for contamination or by the EPA, which is then tasked with seeking reimbursement from those responsible.

Congress created a trust fund to pay for cleanups of non government sites and devised "polluter pays fees" to fund it. These fees consisted of a corporate tax that applies to profits of large corporations in excess of $2 million, a fee on the purchase of harmful chemicals and a fee on the purchase of crude oil by refineries.

But the polluter pays provision expired in 1995.

The Bush administration opposes reinstating the fees unless reforms of cleanup standards and polluters' liabilities are enacted, a position environmentalists say mirrors industry. But Congress has also failed to act -- earlier this year, a measure to reinstate the provision failed.

The trust fund was at a historic high of some $3.6 billion in 1995 when the provision expired, but is likely to be completely depleted by 2004 -- forcing the government to pay entirely for future Superfund cleanup.

Ryan says PIRG is overstating the importance of the trust fund. Funding for Superfund has hovered between $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion since 1995 -- regardless of the level of trust fund.

"The expiration of the Superfund tax has not effected appropriated funding levels," Ryan said. "Even if the fund was reauthorized the money would not flow to directly to the EPA."

That is true, Wolk told ENS, but it does not undermine the importance of making polluters pay for clean up.

"The polluter pays is a guiding principle of the Superfund program -- every President up until now has collected or supported those fees," Wolk said.

Wolk takes issue with the administration's position that the program's budget has not fallen under the Bush presidency. When the figures are adjusted for inflation, Wolk says, funding for the program averaged $1.3 billion from 2001 to 2003 compared to $1.7 billion from 1992 through 2000.

There is little evidence the Superfund program will get the funding boost environmentalists say it needs.

The administration has asked for $1.39 billion for the program for fiscal year 2004, up slightly from the $1.27 appropriated for the current fiscal year. The Senate has yet to act on the FY04 budget for the EPA, but the House passed its version in late July and chose not to approve the administration's full request, instead holding the program's budget in line with the current fiscal year.

© 2003 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

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Albion Monitor August 20, 2003 (

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