New report: Toxic waste backlog eliminated thanks to infrastructure law

Media Contacts
Lisa Frank

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

Two-year review finds 70 Superfund sites in 28 states are getting cleaned up


WASHINGTON– Toxic waste cleanups that had been stalled for years due to lack of funding are moving again thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, according to a new report released Tuesday by U.S. PIRG Education Fund. The report, Superfund Back on Track: Restored funding is speeding toxic waste cleanups across America, documents how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has used money allocated by the law to kickstart cleaning up 70 toxic waste-riddled Superfund sites in 28 states and expedite 100 additional clean-up projects. In addition, the report finds that Congress’ renewal of “polluter pays” taxes puts the Superfund program on firm financial footing for the next decade. 

Superfund sites are contaminated with many harmful chemicals, such as mercury, arsenic, lead and cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE), which the EPA recently proposed to ban. One in five Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site. 

“It’s high time we get toxic waste out of our environment and communities,” said Emily Scarr, U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Beyond Toxics campaign director. “Even my preschool-aged kids know they need to clean up their messes and it’s good news that polluters are once again pitching in to do the same.”

Congress allowed the “polluter pays” taxes on the chemical and petroleum industries to expire in 1995. Within a few years, the Superfund program was struggling to secure funding. As the burden of paying for cleanups shifted to taxpayers, the backlog of projects grew. By 2020, 38 cleanups that should have started, had not, leaving hazardous waste to pollute the land, water and nearby communities. 

One-time funding provided by the bipartisan infrastructure law is now expediting cleanups at sites around the country where companies had:

  • Piled mining waste, including lead, zinc and cadmium across a county with 22,000 residents (Cherokee County, Kansas)
  • Dumped oil waste directly into wetlands (Diamond Head Oil Refinery, New Jersey)
  • Left mining materials containing arsenic, lead and mercury behind in the City of Jackson, California (Argonaut Mine, California)

The restored “polluter pays” taxes could provide Superfund with $2.3 billion in 2024 – about $1 billion more than the program’s total 2021 budget.

“For decades, Superfund funding hasn’t kept up with the scale of the cleanup work that needs to be done,” said Tony Dutzik, associate director and senior policy analyst at Frontier Group and a lead author of the report. “Restoration of the Superfund ‘polluter pays’ taxes will ensure that future cleanups don’t languish at the bottom of the federal government’s ‘to-do’ list for lack of funding.”

U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s new report recommends that Congress renew the Superfund “polluter pays” taxes before they expire and resist attempts to roll back or weaken the program by exempting specific entities or types of pollution from liability under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the law that governs the Superfund program.

“The Superfund program, like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, is a reminder that when we choose to, America can fix our past mistakes,” said Lisa Frank, executive director of Environment America Research & Policy Center’s Washington Office. “We celebrate the progress made cleaning up toxic Superfund sites and urge all industries, citizens and decision makers to work together to achieve a greener, healthier future in which we no longer treat our air, land and water as dumping grounds for hazardous waste.”