Superfund Back on Track

Restored Funding is Speeding Toxic Waste Cleanups Across America

Superfund cleanups protect communities and the environment from toxics, but lack of funding slowed progress. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law put Superfund back on track.

Eric Delgado, EPA | Public Domain
EPA contractors work on a removal action at the Lane Plating Works Super- fund Site in Dallas, Texas.

Industrial activity has left a legacy of contaminated land and water across the United States, putting our health and the environment at risk. About one in five Americans lives within three miles of a hazardous waste site.

The federal Superfund program was created to clean up the hazardous waste sites that pose the greatest danger to people and the environment. For years, however, Superfund cleanups have been slowed or stalled by a chronic lack of funding – a result of the 1995 expiration of the “polluter pays” taxes that were designed to support the program.

Today, however, funding from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is speeding toxic waste cleanups around the country, while restoration of the “polluter pays” taxes has put the Superfund program on a sound financial footing for the future. 

Since the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has started new cleanup projects at 70 hazardous waste sites in 28 states and Puerto Rico and expedited more than 100 others, helping to protect the public and the environment from toxic pollutants such as lead, mercury and asbestos. (To explore cleanup projects that are moving forward with Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding, click on the map below.)

Superfund sites where cleanup projects received funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

Why are hazardous waste sites such a threat?

Superfund sites are contaminated with toxic pollutants like asbestos, lead and trichloroethylene (TCE), which are known to increase the risk of cancer, brain damage and other health issues.

Unless they are contained and cleaned up, these pollutants can contaminate water, soil and air – putting neighborhoods, business and farmlands at risk.

Why did the Superfund program fall behind on cleanups?

Under federal law, the companies responsible for toxic waste are held accountable for the cost of cleanup. When that’s not possible, cleanups are funded by the Superfund program, which was originally funded by “polluter pays” taxes on petroleum and hazardous chemicals. 

Those taxes were allowed to expire in 1995, leaving Superfund dependent on taxpayer dollars allocated by Congress on a yearly basis. For a few years after the expiration of the polluter pays taxes, accumulated tax revenue from previous years kept the program well-funded. By the early 2000s, however, that funding was running out,  and the program’s budget continued to decline into the 2010s.

As a result, many planned cleanup projects were delayed. The backlog of projects waiting for funding grew.

Superfund project backlog

How is the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law helping to speed hazardous waste cleanups? 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program with unprecedented funding to undertake new cleanup projects, many of which had been delayed for years. In addition, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and, later, the Inflation Reduction Act, restored the “polluter pays” taxes – putting the Superfund program on firm financial footing for the future and helping to ensure that urgently needed cleanups stay on schedule.

The restoration of the “polluter pays” taxes will further ensure that future cleanups are completed in a timely way, which is essential to protecting the environment and the public.

Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding and the restoration of “polluter pays” taxes have put the Superfund program back on track. Congress should resist any effort to reduce or eliminate Superfund taxes. In addition, Congress should prevent the creation of exemptions to the nation’s hazardous waste cleanup law that would weaken Superfund’s ability to clean up hazardous sites and hold polluters accountable.

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Authors

Abigail Ham

Former Policy Associate, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.

Emily Scarr

State Director, Maryland PIRG; Director, Stop Toxic PFAS Campaign, PIRG

Emily directs strategy, organizational development, research, communications and legislative advocacy for Maryland PIRG. Emily has helped win small donor public financing in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County, Montgomery County, and Prince George's County. She has played a key role in establishing new state laws to to protect public health by restricting the use of antibiotics on Maryland farms, require testing for lead in school drinking water and restrict the use of toxic flame retardant and PFAS chemicals. Emily also serves on the Executive Committees of the Maryland Fair Elections Coalition and the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working. Emily lives in Baltimore City with her husband, kids, and dog.

Lisa Frank

Executive Director, Environment America Research & Policy Center; Vice President and D.C. Director, The Public Interest Network

Lisa leads Environment America’s work for a greener, healthier world. She also directs The Public Interest Network’s Washington, D.C., office and operations. A pragmatic idealist, Lisa has helped win billions of dollars in investments in clean energy and transportation and developed strategic campaigns to protect America’s oceans, forests and public lands. Lisa is an Oregonian transplant to the Capital region, where she loves hiking, running, biking, and cooking for friends and family.

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