The Superfund Is Now a Super-Letdown

The once-ambitious program to clean up the country's toxic sites has fallen on hard times

| July 19, 2007

The Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund may sound impressive, but recent studies show that the program is incapable of handling the toxic cleanup duties it was designed for. The fund began in 1980 as a program to tax corporate polluters and pool the money into one large 'Superfund' to pay for detoxifying sites created by unknown or indigent polluters. The program soon accumulated a sizable kitty with which to repair the country's most scarred lands. But now, thanks to years of neglect and mismanagement, the money for the Superfund has run dry and left hundreds of sites festering in toxic waste.

According to a series of recent reports by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), 'nearly half of the US population lives within 10 miles of one of the 1,304 active and proposed Superfund sites.' Despite the tremendous need for the program to address these dangerous sites, the number of Superfund projects and projects termed 'construction complete' (meaning all cleanup solutions have been put in place) have fallen significantly in the last six years. In 1995, for example, the fund successfully recovered more than $250 million from polluters, while in each of the past two fiscal years, the fund was able to recoup roughly $60 million.

The decrease in funds is due in part to US bankruptcy laws that shield companies from cleanup costs. The CPI's Kevin Bogardus reports that a handful of companies responsible for some of the country's most polluted sites have gotten away with owing $750 million by declaring bankruptcy and then reemerging from their financial straits under new names. What's more, companies like Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, and a subsidiary of Tyco have won no-bid contracts to clean up sites that their own companies or subsidiaries have been responsible for polluting. Put another way, taxpayers are now shouldering much of the burden as corporations profit from their own filth.?

The lack of funding also has hurt the quality of cleanup efforts. Bill Muno, former manager of the Great Lakes Region Superfund program, tells In These Times that cleanup now 'takes much longer' than it did when he was with the fund years ago. In the past, the Superfund program would take care of both immediate and residual threats at once. Now, according to Muno, 'they'll just do a partial cleanup.'

Members of Congress are now trying to look into the Superfund's financial management, according to Joaquin Sapien of the CPI, but most Americans remain unaware of the problems with the program. 'If they don't know about what is in their backyard, they are not going to be putting pressure onto their representative,' said Mollie Churchill, a coordinator for the governmental watchdog organization OMB Watch. 'If that pressure was there, maybe there would be more money for the Superfund.'

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