Superfund Gets the Super Shaft

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Signs blocking the entrance to an EPA Superfund site

President Bush is shifting his environmental policy into high gear, leaving environmentalists more than a little nervous — and putting some business leaders in an awfully good mood.

Two weeks ago, the White House unveiled a new policy on global warming that rejects many of the fundamental principles of the Kyoto treaty and emphasizes self-regulation by business. It also, importantly, waives pollution controls during economic slowdowns. Now Bush wants to change the way government has funded environmental cleanups since the Reagan era. And his proposed changes may prove to be something of an amnesty for many corporations penalized under the Superfund sites.

The New York Times reports that Bush's 2003 budget proposes to slash the Superfund's primary source of income — a tax aimed at industrial polluters that once generated about $1 billion a year. The onus for paying now shifts to the taxpayers, who will cover $700 million, or more than 50 percent, of the fund's budget. The White House also advocates curtailing the roster of sites covered by the fund, down from the current 1,551. What's the logic behind the cutbacks? Bush staffers tell the Times that there aren't any manageable sites left to clean — only the "megasites" remain, and they're simply too tough to tackle, especially without adequate funding.

The Superfund was established in 1980 as a mechanism to force industry to pay for their toxic spills and general pollution, after years of growing public concern over toxic exposure. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), a watchdog organization in Washington, D.C., estimates that one in four Americans lives within one mile of a Superfund site. Soon, that may not be the case — and not necessarily because things have been cleaned up, but simply because there just isn't enough money allocated to tackling our pollution problems.

The reported budget proposals don't come as a complete surprise; over the past few years, the burden of Superfund expenses slowly shifted away from corporations and over to taxpayers. Still, says Grant Cope, staff attorney at USPIRG, Bush's decision is a momentous shift that bodes ill for the future of Superfund.

"I think this marks a major shift in overall policy," Cope says. "Remember, the last three Presidents, including Bush senior and Reagan, were all in favor of renewing the corporate Superfund tax." Neither the first Bush nor Reagan administrations could ever be accused of being anti-business, but the current Bush administration wants to rewrite that policy to save corporations up to $1 billion per year in taxes.

Now Bush will have to sell his budget to Congress, where, says Cope, the President's opponents could try to force a reversal on Superfund. Democrats are ready to fight, but they're pessimistic about their chances. A White House victory would likely bring an immediate drop-off in the number of sites approved for Superfund status. But of even greater concern to environmental advocates is that the change will see the disincentive to pollute wither away alongside the Superfund coffers. After all, industrial polluters been kept in check by the threat of having to fund costly cleanups.