Panelists offer insights on how to pay for cleaning up toxic waste ‘Superfund’ sites

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Jillian Gordner

In an online discussion hosted by U.S. PIRG, experts experts discussed a Polluters Pays Tax that would require the chemical and petroleum industries to pay for federal cleanup program


CHICAGO — U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and the Center for Health, Environment & Justice hosted a webinar panel discussion on Thursday to discuss the findings from U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s recently published “Superfund Underfunded: How taxpayers have been left with a toxic financial burden” report. The expert speakers highlighted the dangers posed by toxic waste “Superfund” sites, how climate change will make those sites more dangerous as well as U.S. PIRG’s new Make Polluters Pay campaign to speed up Superfund cleanups and alleviate costs for taxpayers.

The panelists at the webinar discussed how a new Congress could speed up toxic waste cleanup by passing a tax on the chemical and petroleum industry — known as the Polluter Pays Tax — that would increase funding for the Superfund program. 

“Millions of Americans live near these sites, which have chemicals either proven to cause — or suspected of causing — major health problems,” said U.S. PIRG’s Make Polluters Pay Campaign Associate Jillian Gordner. “We’ve launched our Make Polluters Pay campaign to clean up toxic waste sites faster and relieve the taxpayers. No one should have to live with an increased risk of cancer, heart and respiratory disease or any illness because of their proximity to a toxic waste site.”

  • Jillian Gordner, Make Polluters Pay Campaign Associate, U.S. PIRG
  • Gustavo Andrade, Organizing Director, Center for Health, Environment & Justice
  • Dr. Jacob C. Carter, Research Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Dr. Edward Lorenz, Community Activist and Professor, Alma College
  • Katherine Probst, Independent Consultant,

One in six Americans lives within three miles of a toxic waste site so dangerous that it has been approved or proposed for cleanup under the federal government’s “Superfund” program. However, there’s not enough money to pay for that vital work, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“The industry has cynically undergone a deliberate effort to target the most vulnerable communities when choosing a place where to dump their waste,” said Gustavo Andrade, Organizing Director at the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. “If you ask anyone living near or in a Superfund site, the stories will make the hair on your neck raise up. We’re talking about people suffering from cancer, kids being born with birth defects and really atrocious daily fear and anxiety that comes from not knowing how your family is going to be affected.”

The chemicals found at Superfund toxic waste sites, such as arsenic, benzene, dioxin and lead, are some of the most dangerous in the world. A report by Union of Concerned Scientists, A Toxic Relationship: Extreme Coastal Flooding and Superfund Sites, suggested the threat of leakage into nearby communities is growing alongside climate change.

“Our report modeled how sea level rise would contribute to extreme coastal flooding along the East and Gulf coasts and lay bare the risks faced by many vulnerable communities located near hazardous facilities,” said Jacob C. Carter, research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There is not enough funding for the Superfund program and that’s going to affect our ability to prepare for the growing threats from climate change.” 

Exposure to chemicals at Superfund toxic waste sites is linked to an increased risk of cancer, respiratory and heart disease, stunted development in children and many other medical problems. Children are particularly vulnerable to developing adverse health effects in early childhood or even before they’re born if their mothers are exposed to harmful contaminants from a Superfund site.

“There are massive human health costs that have been pushed to the side of the Superfund issue,” said Edward Lorenz, Community Activist and Professor at Alma College. “If we do nothing now, our future generations will have to pay the costs later.”

From its inception in 1980 through 1995, the Superfund program was funded by a “Polluter Pays Tax” on heavily polluting industries. Since that tax expired, taxpayers have largely been paying for the program through appropriations from general revenue. 

“The Superfund cleanup budget needs to be increased,” said Katherine Probst, Independent Consultant “EPA needs more money so that it can use enforcement to speed up cleanup by companies who are dragging their feet.”

Since the Polluters Pays Tax expired, the federal cleanup program has slowed down over the past 20 years. Moreover, 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. 

“The Polluters Pay Tax, targeted at the worst polluters, is at the heart of the Superfund program. We need to hold these corporations accountable for dumping toxic waste,” said Andrade.

Read the full report here.