Report last week that the Bush administration plans to
cut cleanup funds at 33 of the country's biggest toxic
waste sites drew predictable howls from Democrats that
the White House was again sabotaging the environment.
It also drew strong denials from the Environmental Protection
Agency, which said that no project would go unfunded.
Meanwhile, an underlying truth went largely unnoticed:
Superfund is in a precarious state, increasingly beholden
to the budgetary whims of Congress and the administration.
Indeed, much of the fault lies with Congress.
The purpose of Superfund, enacted in 1980, was to clean
up the thousands of toxic waste sites abandoned over the
years by industry. The core principle was that the polluter
should pay. Indeed, private industry has paid for two-thirds
of the 800-plus sites cleaned up so far, and will end
up paying for a similar percentage of the roughly 1,200
sites remaining on the E.P.A.'s national priority list.
The problem has been the other one-third, sites where
ownership changed hands and the polluter could not easily
be identified. For these sites Congress established an
"orphan fund," to be underwritten by industrywide taxes,
mainly on oil and chemical companies. While Superfund
as a whole has had its problems, the orphan fund has caused
the most headaches. And industry has always resented paying
the special taxes.
In an effort to build long-term support for Superfund,
the Clinton administration devised a fundamental overhaul
of the program in 1994 that won surprising support among
both industrialists and environmentalists. But Congress
failed to act, and, worse, allowed the corporate taxes
that sustained the orphan fund to expire. Without these
taxes, the fund has dwindled from a high of $3.8 billion
in 1996 to a projected $28 million by September of next
year. The fund is thus increasingly dependent on the willingness
of a budget-conscious Congress to appropriate general
tax revenues (which it has, so far) and the willingness
of the administration to spend that money.
President Bush doesn't want to restore the taxes. Many
Democrats do. They argue that the tax would guarantee
a reliable funding stream and that using general revenues
for the orphan fund undercuts the basic "polluter pays"
principle. Regrettably, their leaders have not pressed
the matter. This is one of those issues that may not make
headway until the public realizes that the toxic mess
down the road isn't being attended to.