Environmentalists, EPA Spar Over Superfund Progress

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is misleading the public about the Bush administration's failure to clean up toxic waste sites, according to a recent report released by the Sierra Club and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

Superfund cleanups have slowed by 50 percent since 2001, according to the report, and the costs of many cleanups have shifted from polluters to average taxpayers.

EPA countered that it is the report's statistics that are misleading. While acknowledging that the annual rate of completing toxic site cleanups has slowed from approximately 85 in the late 1990's to an average of 47 in the Bush years, the agency asserted that by itself this is an inappropriate measure of overall Superfund progress.

"PIRG took the final 3 years of the Clinton administration and compared them to the first 3 years of the Bush administration," explained an EPA official who also worked at EPA during the Clinton years. "It just so happened that those were the best years of the Clinton administration."

What happened, according to this official, is that Superfund was being attacked in the mid-1990's for its failure to complete toxic site cleanups, so in the final years of the Clinton administration, the agency focused on the sites that were easiest to finish. The Bush administration was left with the tough ones.

"There could be some truth in sites getting more complicated," conceded Julie Wolk, an environmental health advocate at PIRG. "But it's not likely that sites have gotten so difficult so quickly that completion rates would decline by 50 percent." She added that EPA's goal for cleanups was 75 in 2001, and it only finished 47.

With respect to the charge that taxpayers now have to foot the bill for the cleanups, both PIRG and EPA agreed that the companies responsible for 70 percent of the toxic sites pay for cleaning them up. The dispute arises over the remaining 30 percent, called "orphan sites," where no responsible party can be found.

PIRG charges that before the Superfund trust fund was exhausted and "polluter pays fees" expired, taxpayers paid for only 18 percent of orphan cleanups; now the total cost of these cleanups must come from general revenues.

"The Superfund tax lapsed in 1995," explained the EPA official. "Congress chose not to reinstate the taxes that supported the trust fund and the president did not ask for reinstatement of the taxes."

However, Congress always treated the trust fund like all other government revenues, according to the official, so it's not clear that EPA received a larger net appropriation because of the trust fund, nor that it is receiving less now. Moreover, many of the companies paying the Superfund tax were not polluters, but banks and insurance companies, he said.

Finally, EPA does recover some of the costs associated with cleaning up the orphan sites, so it's inaccurate to say taxpayers foot the entire bill. "We go after polluters even after we clean them up," explained the official. "We have collected $20 billion so far from them."

While the Bush administration has requested an additional $125 million in the 2005 budget to clean up the remaining, more complicated Superfund sites, given the huge budget deficit it may be difficult for Congress to appropriate the money needed to make up the difference.

"The administration asked for $150 million in 2004, and they didn't get it," said Wolk. "That's why the real solution is to reinstate the Superfund polluter pays fees."

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