Has Superfund Been A Success?

Dear EarthTalk: The “Superfund” law, which administers toxic and hazardous waste cleanup enforcement around the country, turned 25 this year. How has it succeeded?

—David Schink-Puddstein, Chicago, IL

Congress passed the Superfund law in 1980 after residents of Niagara, New York’s Love Canal neighborhood, which had been built over an abandoned chemical dump, got sick and were evacuated en masse in 1978. At the time it created a “trust fund” to underwrite cleanup costs at hundreds of the nation’s most toxic sites. If a company refused to pay to clean up the dangerous toxic discharge it had created, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was empowered to perform the cleanup itself with money from the trust fund—then hold the polluter liable for up to three times the agency’s cost.

While the program is costly, it has yielded some success: 299 former hazardous waste sites across the U.S., including Love Canal, have been cleaned-up. These are not remote sites that pose no danger. One in four Americans lives within four miles of a Superfund site. Typically these sites are contaminated with major pollutants—like cyanide, arsenic or dioxin—that directly threaten human health by polluting air and groundwater, poisoning backyard streams, and contaminating heavily used state and national parks.

The bad news is that the EPA today lists 1,234 sites that still require urgent cleanup, and has said that as many as 3,000 more sites might need to be added. Yet the pace of cleanup is slowing dramatically. In the late 1990s, the EPA cleaned up an average of 87 Superfund sites each year, but just 40 sites were scheduled for cleanup in fiscal years 2003 and 2004, and that number may drop further. Also, the listing of new sites has slowed, from 30 per year average between 1993 and 2000 to 23 per year since. And after dwindling to $30 million in 2003 from a high of $3.8 billion in 1996, the trust fund now stands empty.

According to a report prepared by the Sierra Club and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, until recently the trust fund held enough cash to clean up the 30 percent of “orphan” sites where no responsible party could be found or the offending company had either gone out of business or simply did not have the money. In recent years, revenues accrued to the fund from taxes and levies on dangerous chemicals, crude oil purchases, and from a special Corporate Environmental Income Tax. But the corporate tax expired in 1995 and Congress will not reinstate it, shifting the burden of financing cleanups instead to the taxpayers.

Lois Marie Gibbs, the Love Canal mom who successfully campaigned for the subsidized evacuation of her polluted neighborhood in 1978 and went on to found the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in 1981, thinks it is a travesty that Superfund lacks sufficient funds to carry out remediation projects in needy areas: “It is unfair—and morally wrong—to slow down cleanups in contaminated communities like my former neighborhood because of a lack of money.” Gibbs, along with thousands of other concerned citizens, would like to see Congress re-establish the Superfund tax abandoned in 1995 and get on with the business of cleaning up the thousands of hazardous waste sites still in need of attention.

CONTACTS: Superfund, www.epa.gov/superfund; Sierra Club www.sierraclub.org/toxics/superfund; U.S. Public Interest Research Group, www.uspirg.org/passthrus/superfund.html ; Center for Health, Environment and Justice, www.chej.org.