Make Polluters Pay to Clean Up Their Toxic Waste
Over the last two months, we’ve seen two of America’s most populous regions inundated with floods and battered by the winds of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—not to mention the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thousands of buildings, homes, and vehicles have been destroyed, millions of lives uprooted, and billions of dollars lost. But lurking amongst all the staggering figures is a smaller number that might end up meaning just as much to the well-being of those impacted by the storms—the number of contaminated toxic waste and chemical repositories that may now be leaching deadly effluent into the flood waters in the affected communities.
In Houston, the Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed that 13 of the region’s 41 so-called ‘Superfund sites’ were flooded during the recent storm and now may pose a threat. Superfund, created by Congress in 1980 as part of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, was designed to address the thousands of former industrial waste sites, lead processing facilities, accident locations, and other environmental disaster sites scattered across the United States that both pose a threat to the public and where, for whatever reason, it is impossible for the original owner to address. Many of these sites can take years or even decades to clean up. Across America, there are thousands of environmentally degraded sites, known as brownfields, that are sometimes in the middle of residential areas; the worst of which are essentially ticking time bombs slowly releasing harmful byproducts into surrounding land and water or waiting for an extreme weather event to help them spread their contaminants. The only way to stop them is to remediate the sites, something Superfund was designed to do.
This is not just a Texas problem. EPA Region 5, which includes Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, is home to 365 Superfund sites on the National Priority List. In Illinois alone, more than 740,000 residents live within 3 miles of a Superfund location, a disproportionate amount of whom come from low-income communities and communities of color, who seemingly always end up unfairly bearing the brunt of challenges like this. Just this year, more than 1,000 residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana had to evacuate their homes when soil lead levels on their property, built on the U.S.S Lead Superfund site, dramatically exceeded safe limits. This is an everywhere problem and an everyone problem, a toxic relic from an era of environmental malfeasance.
Superfund has been an effective tool, but it is overmatched and underfunded. Many of the Superfund sites are complex and can take generations to fully remediate. However, year after year, EPA reports fewer and fewer cleanups around the country, all while taxpayers take on the costs.
At its inception, Superfund was funded primarily through a ‘polluter pays’ model, requiring companies in polluting industries to help share the costs of environmental cleanup though fees and other taxes. This approach encourages accountability on behalf of the polluters and a true incentive to minimize harmful waste. It also injected Superfund with billions of dollars necessary for its efforts and was bipartisan, supported by Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. At its height, Superfund was armed with nearly $4 billion, almost all of it accumulated from the companies that made the mess in first place.
But in the late 1990s, Congress allowed many of the key taxes and fees to expire and since then Superfund has been almost entirely reliant on taxpayers to keep working. Consequently, every American citizen is paying the price to clean up pollution that they didn’t cause and that threatens to harm them and their families while the businesses responsible get off scot-free. Of course, getting polluters to pay has always been complicated. Some of the sites are a hundred years old and the responsible entities have long since been sold or gone out of business. But the current legal framework puts EPA on the hook to pay for cleanup first and requires years of costly litigation to get responsible parties involved at all. This needs to change.
Today, Superfund receives slightly more than $1 billion a year, just about all of it appropriated by Congress. Inexplicably, in his budget recommendation to Congress for fiscal year 2018, President Trump asked for a 25% cut to Superfund funding, despite his EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt singling out brownfield remediation as one of the only environmental priorities he’s actually interested in. Despite our partisan differences, I’m pleased to say the House of Representatives rejected Trump’s request on a bipartisan basis and voted to slightly increase funding for next year.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma made clear that leaving these sites unaddressed is not an acceptable solution, not as climate change creates more extreme weather events and not in a region like ours filled with toxic remnants of our heritage as America’s industrial heartland. We need to return to a polluter pays model that places the onus on the responsible parties to clean up their toxic wastes. The recent storms were a wake-up call but they aren’t the whole story. We can’t let this crisis fade into memory without learning its lessons.