This week marks the 25th anniversary of the first congressional vote to pass the Superfund, a major milestone in the fight against the environment’s worst disasters.
But 25 years later, the toxic-waste cleanup program, as well as an assortment of other environmental programs, has been slashed.
Last week, the GOP-led Congress repealed one of the program’s key functions: reporting compliance costs. There’s no telling how many Superfund debts American taxpayers may have to pay out in the next 25 years if Republicans have their way.
The Superfund itself is a collection of laws first passed in 1980 that attempted to combat toxic pollution and stop federal pollution lawsuits from shutting down economic activity — whether that meant freeing the pipe that flowed into the aquifer or paying the bills. The program was expanded during the 1990s to include contamination from small polluters.
President Donald Trump, while campaigning to become president, vowed to support the program but has faced opposition from Congressional Republicans, who have stripped the bill of funding.
While the threat of Superfund’s fiscal constraints may be a deterrent for polluters to commit environmental crimes in the first place, it makes it hard for prosecutors to collect. A great case in point: Last year, Chemical Waste Management, a heavily regulated polluter based in Texas, avoided multiple felony charges because of a “leakage fee” the EPA has agreed to pay it as part of a settlement. So far, only $4.5 million has been paid — well short of the total of $8 million prosecutors demanded — with hundreds of millions of dollars more likely to be withheld.
If Superfund were to disappear tomorrow, the program’s big debt, from dioxin testing at Santa Barbara, would be a major concern for victims. (If the program were to vanish tomorrow, the agency would still have the power to negotiate settlements with polluters.) And the biggest liabilities are not subject to the minimum standards for fines.
The political fight over Superfund is more than budgetary. Just last week, reports emerged that the president has privately vowed to strip Superfund funding to force cleanups of a string of chemical plants in the South, including a dangerous one in Alabama. (He’s said to be displeased about the project of doing it without federal money.) Many, if not most, of the plants are large polluters in the eyes of environmentalists.
Without the program, governments may be forced to guess as to the exact range of damages a company’s dioxin pollution could result in. And whether that figure will be large enough to absorb the costs of cleanups may depend on how well the project can be sold to communities affected by the pollution.
The same goes for the $25 billion estimated cost of cleaning up a Superfund site at Hanford.
For the EPA, all of this means more work for its Dirty Dozen plan — the program’s real-life version of “Precious Moments.” Climate change presents a new set of threats to the Clean Water Act that the EPA has not addressed in the “Precious Moments” collection of nation-wide Superfund sites, even though the agency has been running “Clear Skies” ad campaigns and creating “Thick Air” posters to educate the public about America’s worsening air quality.
In February, the EPA finally released its Dirty Dozen plan — but the agency’s progress report says the plan’s implementation could take nearly another two decades. In other words, the pollutants responsible for tens of millions of dollars in losses for local communities each year will probably continue to cripple them even after the Clean Water Act banishes its poison.
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has warned of the dangers of climate change, including the need to “resolve the debate around climate change.”
That’s a logical claim for Exxon to make, given that climate change has been a subject of public debate for decades. But as evidence keeps mounting that fossil fuels aren’t going away anytime soon, Exxon may have a hard time defending its position. So does the environment.