On Monday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman stood on a smog-shrouded peak in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park and pledged to create “a healthier future for our children and a cleaner environment for our future in all the different parts of our great country.”
Actions say more than words, however, and the administration’s recent decision to reduce spending on the Superfund--the national trust established in 1980 to clean up toxic waste sites where the original polluter is out of business or unable to pay--belies Whitman’s sweet rhetoric.
In the beginning, the government paid for the Superfund largely by forcing economically viable corporations that pollute to pick up the tab for the cleanup of sites left by deadbeat companies. Congress eliminated that corporate tax in 1995.
The fund has been evaporating ever since, even though the government has supplied it with small infusions of cash. The fund contained $3.8 billion in 1996, but unless something is done it will shrivel to $28 million by next year.
The administration plans to eliminate money for 33 Superfund sites in 19 states, according to a report released Monday by the EPA’s inspector general.
For example, federal officials this year told the citizens of Edison, N.J., that the agency would start carting away contaminated soil this fall at the former site of Chemical Insecticide Corp., which manufactured the carcinogen Agent Orange for use in the Vietnam War. According to Monday’s report, however, no money will be available for the cleanup.
What’s needed is a 180-degree policy shift. Bush should support a bill introduced last month by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that would reinstate the special Superfund tax that chemical and oil companies paid.
The American Petroleum Institute contends that the Superfund unfairly required the oil industry to shoulder 57% of Superfund taxes, even though the petroleum industry was responsible for “less than 10% of the share of liability at Superfund sites.”
Indeed, the Superfund’s tax formulas could be improved. But simply eliminating the tax altogether is a breach of social and corporate responsibility. That’s why President Reagan and the first President Bush both reauthorized the corporate Superfund tax.
One in four Americans live within four miles of a Superfund site. The corporations that created these problems sites have brushed off any responsibility to protect the public from toxins that increase the risk of getting cancer and other diseases. People count on their government to be less reckless.