May 24, 2019

Superfund site funding at risk

Cleanup efforts at three toxic waste sites in Maine are at risk of being underfunded in fiscal year 2003, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The report, titled “Cleanup Slowdown,” describes how cleanup efforts at many federal Superfund sites have stalled nationwide during the Bush administration, due primarily to a lack of funding.

The report included the Eastland Woolen Mill in Corinna, Callahan Mining Corp. in Brooksville and Hows Corner in Plymouth on its list of 522 Superfund sites – 42 percent of all sites in the United States – where cleanup could be slowed or stopped due to lack of funding in fiscal year 2003. Last year, 78 sites were underfunded, according to U.S. PIRG.

Superfund is a federal program that manages the cleanup of large polluted sites, typically former industrial facilities where the polluter has long since gone out of business. Between 1986 and 1995, the tremendously expensive cleanup operations were funded primarily by taxes levied on the manufacturers of toxic chemicals.

However, legislators have not reinstated the so-called “polluter pays tax” that expired in 1995. Superfund, which boasted $3.6 billion in reserve at its peak, is expected to run out of money by 2004.

The Bush administration has said it will not support the tax until Superfund is reformed. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine have echoed his concern, last year voting against a budget amendment that would have reinstated the tax.

Some reformers say the polluter pays tax is unfair because it is not linked to a company’s actual environmental record. Others have problems with the way potentially responsible parties are identified and billed for some of the cleanup costs.

While such concerns are being debated by politicians, environmentalists and waste management experts, the lack of new funding has slowed cleanup efforts, according to U.S. PIRG.

“This is a serious problem. There are half the cleanups happening this year as there were three years ago,” said the report’s author, Julie Wolk, an environmental health advocate with U.S. PIRG.

Without sufficient funding, Superfund cleanups take longer, unnecessarily exposing more people to the toxic waste, Wolk said.

The Corinna site, which last year was awarded only $5 million of the $12 million requested for cleanup efforts, was given special attention in the U.S. PIRG report as one of several “case studies” of Superfund sites that have felt the impact of reduced funding.

“There’s a toxic waste dump in the middle of town and they’re not getting the funding that they need,” Wolk said.

Wolk reviewed federal budgets to determine that Superfund requests nationwide will be underfunded by at least $1.2 billion between 2001 and 2004.

And taxpayers are being asked to pick up the tab, according to U.S. PIRG.

In the mid-’80s, taxpayers paid only 18 percent of the total cost of Superfund. In fiscal year 2004, taxpayers are expected to be responsible for 79 percent of cleanup costs, and in fiscal year 2005 nearly the entire program will be funded by the public, the report said.

Since the polluters pay tax expired in 1995, “polluters have enjoyed a $4 million-a-day tax break, totaling more than $10 billion,” the report said.

Wolk spent several months preparing the report, which she hopes will raise public concern about Superfund’s finances, leading to a reinstatement of the polluter pays tax.

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