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New report: Toxic waste cleanup efforts lag, putting Americans at risk

Funding shortfalls hinder ‘Superfund’ program’s ability to clean up toxic sites
For Immediate Release

CHICAGO -- One in six Americans lives within three miles of a toxic waste site so dangerous that it has been approved or proposed for cleanup under the federal government’s “Superfund” program. However, there’s not enough money to pay for that vital work, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data detailed in a new report from U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research & Policy Center. The report, “Superfund Underfunded: How taxpayers have been left with a toxic financial burden,” finds that almost every U.S. state and territory has at least one Superfund toxic waste site and remediation efforts are lagging because of budget shortfalls. 

“Millions of Americans live near these sites, which have chemicals either proven to cause -- or suspected of causing -- major health problems,” said Jillian Gordner, the report author, who works on U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s campaigns against toxic substances. “Congress’ failure to reinstate a Polluter Pays Tax that would speed the cleanup of these sites is a choice to prioritize industry’s bottom line over the lives of Americans.” 

The Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, a priority of the EPA for four decades, is responsible for responding to the most serious hazardous waste sites in the country, including the 1,327 sites on the EPA’s National Priorities List. The chemicals found there, such as arsenic, benzene, dioxin, and lead, are some of the most dangerous in the world. 

“From Love Canal to today’s ‘forever chemicals’ crisis, toxic waste has poisoned our waterways and the drinking water of countless Americans,” observed John Rumpler, clean water program director for Environment America Research & Policy Center. “Reinstating the Polluter Pays policy will not only hasten cleanup of current waste sites but also help drive companies towards safer alternatives and prevent future contamination.”

From its inception in 1980 through 1995, the Superfund program was funded by a self-explanatory “Polluter Pays Tax.” Since that tax expired, taxpayers have been paying for the program through appropriations from general revenue. These appropriations have decreased by more than $54 million a year on average since 1999 in constant 2020 dollars, slowing progress toward cleaning up toxic waste sites. This trend continued in Fiscal Year 2020, when cleanup was completed at only 10 sites, compared to an annual average of 71 sites from 1991 to 2000, when the Superfund Trust was at its highest balance. 

To speed up the cleanup of these toxic waste sites and ensure taxpayers are not required to foot the bill, the report recommends:

  • Reinstating a Polluter Pays Tax to fund the Superfund.
  • Taking into account the impact of climate change when designing the cleanup plan for a site. 
  • States and local governments should work with the EPA to notify citizens of Superfund toxic waste sites near them

“If we’re successful in reinstating the Polluter Pays Tax, it will mean fewer toxic Superfund sites threatening our drinking water, soil, and air. It will mean reducing the risk of cancer and other serious illnesses for millions of Americans and giving them safer communities to live in. And, regardless of where we live, it will mean that we no longer have to carry the financial burden of cleaning up polluters’ messes,” Gordner concluded.