New Report: Toxic waste cleanup efforts lag, putting Americans at risk

Media Contacts
Claudia Deeg

Funding shortfalls hinder “Superfund” program’s ability to clean up toxic sites

CALPIRG Education Fund

OAKLAND, Calif. — California has the second-most toxic waste sites of any state in the country, according to a new report from CALPIRG Education Fund, “Superfund Underfunded: How taxpayers have been left with a toxic financial burden.” Due to their highly hazardous nature, the 97 sites in California are eligible for cleanup under the federal government’s “Superfund” program but data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detailed in the report show remediation efforts are lagging due to budget shortfalls. Nationally, one in six Americans live within three miles of a Superfund toxic waste site.

“Millions of Americans, including thousands of people here in California, live near these sites, which have chemicals either proven to cause — or suspected of causing — major health problems,” said Claudia Deeg, CALPIRG Associate. “Congress’ failure to reinstate a Polluter Pays Tax that would speed the cleanup of these sites is a choice to prioritize the bottom line over the lives of Americans.” 

The Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, a priority of the EPA for four decades, is responsible for responding to the most serious hazardous waste sites in the country, including the 1,327 sites on the EPA’s National Priorities List. The chemicals found there, such as arsenic, benzene, dioxin, and lead, are some of the most dangerous in the world. 

From its inception in 1980 through 1995, the Superfund program was funded by a self-explanatory “Polluter Pays Tax.” Since that tax expired, taxpayers have been paying for the program through appropriations from general revenue. These appropriations have decreased by more than $54 million a year on average since 1999 in constant 2020 dollars, slowing progress toward cleaning up toxic waste sites. This trend continued in Fiscal Year 2020, when cleanup was completed at only 10 sites, compared to an annual average of 71 sites from 1991 to 2000, when the Superfund Trust was at its highest balance.  In California, nearly one third of sites do not clearly have human exposure under control. 

“The Superfund toxic waste cleanup program is essential to protecting our health and safety,” said Jillian Gordner, the report author, who works on U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s campaigns against toxic substances. “Without adequate funding, more people are exposed to hazardous contamination for longer. To clean up the more than 1,300 toxic sites currently putting millions of Americans at risk, we need to secure steady funding that won’t fluctuate with the federal budget process. That funding should come from the polluting industries responsible for these messes, not the public.”

To speed up the cleanup of these toxic waste sites and ensure taxpayers are not required to foot the bill, the report recommends:

  • Reinstating a Polluter Pays Tax to fund the Superfund.

  • Taking into account the impact of climate change when designing the cleanup plan for a site. 

  • States and local governments should work with the EPA to notify citizens of Superfund toxic waste sites near them

“If we’re successful in reinstating the Polluter Pays Tax, it will mean fewer toxic Superfund sites threatening our drinking water, soil, and air. It will mean reducing the risk of cancer and other serious illnesses for millions of Americans and giving them safer communities in California. And, regardless of where we live, it will mean that we no longer have to carry the financial burden of cleaning up polluters’ messes,” Deeg concluded.