Reading Room

Federal Superfund Program Turns 30 this Month: Communities Request "Birthday Gift" of Adequate Funding to Clean Up Contaminated Sites

Thirty years ago this December, President Jimmy Carter signed the Superfund law. The basic idea then, as now, was to protect community health, the nation's drinking water supplies and the environment by cleaning up the most dangerous toxic sites around the country.

As the Superfund program got underway, it expanded to include contaminated government sites, such as Livermore Lab and other locations in the Dept. of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons complex. Livermore Lab was scored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), received a high "hazard ranking" and was placed on the Superfund list of most contaminated sites in the nation in 1987. The Livermore Lab's high explosives testing range, called Site 300 and located near Tracy, CA, was subsequently scored by EPA and became a Superfund site in 1990.

One of the philosophical and practical premises of Superfund is the idea that the "polluter pays." At federal government sites, like Livermore Lab, the money to complete cleanup is requested as part of the annual appropriations process. The problems occur when DOE fails to request enough funds to do the job and/or when Congress fails to appropriate enough. At privately-owned, for-profit Superfund cleanup sites, the funding works differently; in essence corporations must ante up out of their profits. Hence the term "Superfund."

Yet, key provisions have been allowed to sunset, and the Superfund Program faces bankruptcy. The crisis is both moral and fiscal. On this 30th anniversary of the Superfund law, community groups in 25 states (including CA's Tri-Valley CAREs) have banded together to call on Congress to save Superfund, in part by reinstating the "polluter pays" fees. The groups are requesting reinstatement of one of the fees in particular, the Corporate Environmental Income Tax. This was paid by companies with $2 million or more in profits and it totaled $12 on every $10,000. This is not too much to ask for our families' health and our environment.

On December 1, 2010, Tri-Valley CAREs is joining groups across the country in sending a letter to federal policymakers with an appeal to save Superfund and to reinstate polluter pays fees. Along with our letter to Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, we are including a coupon for a Superfund 30th-birthday cupcake and a photograph of the Livermore Lab Superfund site.

This national action is being coordinated through the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ). Collectively, we are calling on Congress to reduce government spending and reinstate polluter pays fees as the most equitable way to finance Superfund and get it back on track cleaning up hundreds of languishing toxic dumps and other hazardous sites.

As Lois Gibbs, executive director at CHEJ noted in the group's call to action: "This year the chemical industry is banking a 200% increase in profits (Chemical Week, 10/8/2010). We need to reduce government spending and reinstate polluter pays fees in 2011. It is time for Congress to give Superfund the much-needed gift of reliable, adequate funding for its 30th birthday to protect American communities."

Here is part of the solution: Supported by President Obama, three bills are pending that would reinstate the industry fees (NJ Senator Frank Lautenberg's S. 3164; OR Representative Earl Blumenauer's HR 564; and NJ Representative Frank Pallone's H.R. 832).

Here is some key background information: As the 30th anniversary of Superfund approaches on December 11th, the once-robust toxic cleanup fund is at its weakest when needed most, according to a recent federal report.

For 15 years, the government imposed fees on companies that went into a trust fund to clean up the worst of the privately owned toxic sites in the country. These fees expired in 1995 and Congress did not renew them, so the fund ran out of money in 2003.

Since then, the federal government has appropriated public dollars every year. But the budget is too small and this has greatly slowed the rate of site cleanups. A 2010 report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the program completed clean up activities at 19 sites last year, compared with 89 in 1999. GAO also found that at more than 60 percent of 239 Superfund sites with "unacceptable or unknown human exposure," all or more than half of the cleanup work remains to be done due to insufficient funding.

And, if the funding situation is left to languish, it will only get worse. The EPA estimates that costs will be up to $681 million each year through 2014, which greatly exceeds the previous annual costs of $220 to $267 million (2000 to 2009). In addition, EPA estimates that about 25 sites per year will be added to Superfund in the next 5 years, higher than the past average of 16 sites per year.

For our future, we must focus our sights on pollution prevention and not continue to allow private industry and federal government agencies like the Dept. of Energy to contaminate our air, soil and water willy-nilly.

But for sites and communities already contaminated, it is simple justice to make sure that they get cleaned up. And, that the polluter pay a fair share of the financial burden.

Happy Birthday Superfund. Our wish for you at 30 is that your good work not perish due to inadequate funding.


Click here for a copy of Tri-Valley CAREs' Superfund petition to ensure adequate funds for cleanup at Livermore Lab.

Click here for a copy of the letters Tri-Valley CAREs is sending the first week of December to Senator Boxer.

Click here for a copy of the letters Tri-Valley CAREs is sending the first week of December to Senator Feinstein.