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EPA Superfund sites are oozing trouble. Make the polluters pay to clean them up.

Jillian Gordner
·4 min read

The EPA has a lot of catching up – and cleaning up – to do, and needs Congress’ help

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have a new boss soon: Michael Regan, the recent head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. After four years of environmental malpractice at the EPA, the new administrator there will have a lot on his plate, including dealing with an insidious threat that threatens tens of millions of Americans, that we don’t have the money to remedy.

One in six Americans lives within three miles of a toxic waste site so dangerous that the government has designated or proposed that the EPA’s Superfund program should clean it up. According to a new report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, North Carolina is the 12th-worst state in the country when it comes to Superfund sites, with 38 of these contaminated locations from the low country of Wilmington to the mountains of Waynesville, including a handful in our largest population centers – one in Charlotte and two in Raleigh.

The chemicals at these sites may increase the risk of cancer, heart and respiratory problems, and other serious health issues, especially for people who live nearby. The radius of potential victims keeps getting wider as climate-induced disasters threaten to spread contamination from Superfund sites further into residential areas. With North Carolina being the third most hurricane-prone state, the risk of flooding breaching a Superfund site poses a severe threat. You’d think preventing exposure to hazardous materials would be a national priority, but the federal government has underfunded this key cleanup program for decades. A Polluter Pays tax would fix that.

The Superfund toxic waste cleanup program was created in 1980 to empower the (EPA) to identify toxic waste sites, make known polluters pay for the cleanup, and clean up so-called “orphan sites” when the EPA can’t figure out who is responsible or the polluter can’t afford the cleanup. The money to clean up orphan sites used to come from a tax on polluting industries. However, shortly after that Polluter Pays tax expired in 1995, we, the taxpayers, began footing the bill. Now, with cuts to the EPA’s budget and our tax dollars going elsewhere, there’s not enough money for this program, despite how crucial it is to Americans’ health and the environment.

As budget appropriations to the Superfund program have decreased over the past two decades, cleanup has slowed, putting more Americans at risk of exposure to hazardous contamination, and for longer periods of time. In fiscal year 2020, the Superfund program completed cleanup at only 10 sites, compared to an average of 71 sites each fiscal year from 1991 to 2000, when the Superfund budget was at its highest.

Congress could increase appropriations to the Superfund program to clean up these sites. But the public shouldn’t have to pay for polluters’ messes. Instead, we should reinstate the Polluter Pays tax that originally funded the program. A Polluter Pays tax would ensure a more steady source of funding for the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program – one that won’t fluctuate with the federal budget process – and would hold polluters, not the public, financially responsible.

More than 1,300 toxic sites fill the Superfund National Priorities List, including those 38 in North Carolina alone. We cannot let cleanup efforts continue to lag while toxic chemicals threaten our communities. If we’re successful in reinstating the Polluter Pays tax, it will mean fewer hazardous chemicals in our drinking water, soil and air from Superfund toxic waste sites. It will mean reducing the risk of cancer and other serious illnesses for millions of Americans and giving them safer neighborhoods 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. It’s time to protect Americans’ health and our wallets by once again implementing a Polluter Pays tax.

Jillian Gordner is working to reinstate the polluter pays tax in the federal Superfund law as part of her work to advance U.S. PIRG’s Zero Out Toxics program.