Return of Superfund?

Return of Superfund?

Toxic seeps at Elizabeth Copper Mine Superfund site in Vermont (Photo: USGS)

For a decade and a half, the U.S. government’s toxic-cleanup program, Superfund, has neither been super nor much of a fund. Now, Superfund might finally earn its name again.

The federal program (known among environmental policy wonks as Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA) is supposed to clean up the country’s most toxic and complex waste sites, using money from corporate petroleum, chemical and other industries that produce toxic pollution — and the hazardous sites that land on the Superfund priorities list. But Congress let the corporate polluter fee expire in 1995, which let companies off the hook for cleanup funding and started draining Superfund’s account from $1.5 billion to virtually nil.

Superfund cleanup of asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana (Photo: US EPA)

In 2003, Grist published an essay I wrote about the sorry state of Superfund and the silly funding choices at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (The piece was originally published through High Country News wire service, Writers on the Range.) At the time, the George W. Bush White House had announced plans to spend a quick $30,000 for enviro-friendly mentions on primetime TV, but had no plans to renew industry payments to Superfund.

From my essay:

Through the new campaign, the EPA will place environmental messages on popular shows hoping viewers will mimic their favorite actors.

Picture Will & Grace composting in the back alley of their Manhattan apartment. Or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation detectives properly disposing of their forensic lab byproducts. Malcolm in the Middle might sport a canvas bag with the EPA logo to carry his recyclables from the school cafeteria. …

The campaign allows the EPA to reach the American people where they’re most attentive and vulnerable: on their couches. Jay Leno’s curbside interviews on The Tonight Show prove that more people know the names of the American Idol finalists than the recently resigned EPA administrator (Christie Todd Whitman, for those playing along at home). The EPA’s prime-time push allows Bush to do some cheap greenwashing in people’s living rooms while Superfund dwindles and other environmental-quality laws such as the Clean Air Act are gutted.

This June, the Obama administration announced that the holiday is over (maybe). The White House is behind legislation to reinstate collection for a cleanup trust fund.

Juliet Eilerpin reports for The Washington Post:

The move will spark an intense battle on Capitol Hill, with Democrats and the administration lining up against oil companies and chemical manufacturers. The measure’s proponents say it will ease the burden on taxpayers, who are currently funding the cleanup of “orphaned” sites, where no one has accepted responsibility for the contamination. Opponents suggest that it amounts to an unfair penalty.

“This is really about who should pay for the cleanup,” said Mathy Stanislaus of the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. “Should it be the taxpayer, who has no responsibility for contaminating the sites, or should it be those individuals who create hazardous substances that contaminate the site?”

The introduction of legislation seems to show that President Obama is paying attention to the pressing environmental issues and that he expects the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to wield some regulatory (and financial) power. But the White House pushing for a law and passing one through Congress are very different things.

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