Reinstated ‘polluter pays’ tax goes into effect, protecting Americans from toxic waste

Media Contacts
Emily Rogers

Former Zero Out Toxics, Advocate, PIRG

Taran Volckhausen

Former Communications Associate, The Public Interest Network

WASHINGTON —  A chemical excise tax to fund Superfund toxic waste site cleanups nationwide will go into effect on Friday, reinstating one of several “polluter pays” taxes that had been allowed to lapse 26 years ago. The EPA’s Superfund program is responsible for cleaning up the country’s most hazardous waste sites. For much of the past quarter century, the Superfund program languished because it lacked funding. President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package, signed into law last year, reauthorized the polluter pays tax on chemical companies. Over the next 10 years, the reinstated polluter pays tax will provide an estimated $14.45 billion in funding to shore up toxic waste cleanups.

“For too long, polluting companies have shirked their responsibility for cleaning up toxic waste, unfairly shifting the burden onto the American taxpayer. With climate change-linked natural disasters threatening to sweep toxic waste into our communities, it’s more important than ever to get the federal Superfund program back on its feet cleaning up toxic waste in our communities,” said U.S. PIRG President Faye Park. “This Fourth of July weekend, as polluters’ dollars are once again used to fund our Superfund program, I will celebrate a renewed nationwide commitment to health and environmental safety over any industry’s bottom line.” 

One in six Americans lives within three miles of a proposed or listed Superfund toxic waste site, potentially increasing their risk of cancer, heart and respiratory problems and other serious illnesses. To make matters worse, severe climate-induced natural disasters such as hurricanes threaten to flood Superfund sites and spread contamination into nearby communities.

“EPA’s Superfund toxic waste cleanups have slowed to a trickle over the past two decades because there hasn’t been enough funding,” said U.S. PIRG Zero Out Toxics Advocate Emily Rogers. “Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law reinstating the ‘polluter pays’ tax on the chemical industry, we have the best opportunity in decades to  protect Americans from deadly toxic waste.” 

When Congress established the Superfund in 1980, most of the program’s funding came from an excise tax on petroleum and chemical manufacturers. In 1995, Congress failed to pass legislation to renew the tax and the cost burden fell to taxpayers. Currently, there are 1,334 sites on the National Priorities List, which are located in nearly all 50 states. Of these sites, 78.5% have been on the list for more than 20 years. 

U.S. PIRG and its state affiliates have a long history of advocating for the swift and safe cleanup of toxic waste sites. State PIRGs in Massachusetts, Missouri and Colorado were among the first to win state level Superfund laws in the early 1980s. In 1986, state victories were followed by a federal amendment that strengthened the EPA Superfund program by closing loopholes that companies used to avoid paying for cleanups. 

”It wasn’t that long ago when it was the wild west for toxic polluters,” said MASSPIRG Director Janet Domenitz. “We put a question on the ballot here in 1986 calling for Massachusetts to identify, contain and clean up the toxic pollution and it was approved by the highest margin of any ballot question in history. There’s still plenty of work to do and the polluter pays tax is critical to get it done.”

U.S. PIRG has continued to advocate for holding polluters accountable for their toxic messes. Just last year, U.S. PIRG Education Fund released three reports about the Superfund program, the impacts that severe weather events can have on Superfund sites in the paths of hurricanes and what fully funding the program would mean for toxic waste clean up in America. In February 2021, PIRG launched the Make Polluters Pay campaign in order to educate the public about the problems with the Superfund program and organize support for the reinstatement of funding for the program.

“All Americans deserve clean, safe communities to live in and raise their families. Today, we are taking one of the most significant steps forward in decades toward making that happen. But there is more to be done,” said Rogers. “Now, Congress needs to finish the job by reinstating the polluter pays tax on petroleum companies. By fully funding the Superfund program, we can ensure that the EPA has the resources it needs to quickly and safely clean up the United States’ most hazardous and dangerous toxic waste sites.”