"It's no longer 'super' and it's not much of a fund," asserted Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-NJ. "It would be more honest to cancel the program."
"The very foundation of the program is being undermined," agreed Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., likened the Bush administration's Superfund policies to terrorism.
A report on the funding of Superfund cleanup efforts, delivered to the subcommittee by EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley, was the occasion for the hearing. The report stated that as of June 1, 2002 EPA regions requested $450 million for remedial actions and EPA headquarters allocated $224 million.
But Tinsley also stated that the report is only a "snapshot" in time, and that EPA may increase cleanup funding before the end of the fiscal year.
Democrats asserted that under the Bush administration fewer Superfund sites are being cleaned and they are being cleaned at a slower pace because of underfunding they blame on the president.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and an EPA official defended the administration's cleanup record, countering that Congress determines Superfund funding, and annual appropriations have remained at about $1.4 billion for the past 10 years.
Responding to charges that it is abandoning the "polluter pays" principle, Marianne Horinko, EPA's assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said that currently 70 percent of all Superfund cleanup costs are born by corporate polluters.
Horinko also said that no work on current cleanup efforts has been halted, though she did not counter charges that progress in some places is slowing down, nor that some toxic sites that need to be cleaned up are not being addressed at all.
What may lie at the heart of the partisan wrangling is the fate of a bill, opposed by the Bush administration and congressional Republicans, that would reinstate the Superfund tax on companies that lapsed in the mid-1990's. Democrats favor the legislation because without it, they say, taxpayers will foot the bill for the roughly 30 percent of cases where the responsible party cannot be found or cannot be forced to pay. The Superfund trust fund is nearly exhausted, and will hold only $28 million in fiscal year 2003, according to Jeffords.
Inhofe said he opposed reinstating the tax unless it is accompanied by "comprehensive reforms," including reforms on the legal liability provisions of the bill.
In the meantime, while the administration opponents cannot spend as much money on Superfund cleanup as they would like, they are spending freely in the currency of moral outrage.
"It's just wrong that this is not being taken care of," said Jeffords. "It's strange that the administration is willing to spend billions and reorganize the government to fight terrorism, but won't spend millions to protect the health and safety of Americans where they live."