For more than 20 years, “the polluter pays” has been the rationale for federal cleanup of nearly 800 of the nastiest industrial waste sites across the United States. Now the Bush Administration has reversed this progress and, beginning next year, taxpayers will foot the bill - if anyone does.
The environmental disaster uncovered at New York's Love Canal in 1978 spurred Congress to create the Superfund program. To finance cleanup of toxic sites where the polluter couldn't be identified or had gone out of business, a tax was levied on the oil, chemical, and heavy manufacturing industries.
This program, begun in 1980 during the Carter administration, was continued through the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, although the tax was ended in 1985, a victim of the so-called “Republican Revolution.”
By the end of next year, the Superfund will have a balance of only about $28 million, a fraction of the $3.8 billion it once contained and not nearly enough to pay for the $1.2 billion a year in work needed. So not only will the cost of any cleanup be borne by taxpayers instead of polluters, but the appropriations will have to compete with increased funding for defense, homeland security, tax cuts, and other Bush priorities.
Although administration officials disclaim it, the end result is that fewer sites are being cleaned up, even as the complexity of the projects and severity of the pollution have increased. The Clinton administration averaged 87 Superfund cleanups each year, but the number dropped to 47 last year with George W. Bush in office. Only about 40 sites are to be completed this year, and more than 500 remain.
Christie Whitman, chief of Mr. Bush's Environmental Protection Agency, complains that “polluter pays” means that industries with no environmental problems are forced to contribute. But the administration's only solution is for all taxpayers to pick up the tab, which means less money and delays in cleanup.
Superfund sites are grim reminders of the old “out of sight, out of mind” approach that once governed the dumping of toxic materials. At Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., more than 21,000 tons of chemical waste were dumped in a landfill and forgotten. But health problems of area residents - headaches, respiratory problems, and skin rashes, and high incidence of cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects - finally forced government action, and Superfund was born.
In Toledo, one such dangerous site was a 2.67-acre tract on Angola Road where lead once was extracted from old car batteries. Tests showed runoff from the property carried contamination into a ditch, then to Swan Creek, and into the Maumee River. Cleanup there began two years ago.
The Superfund program has been beneficial to the health of untold numbers of Americans, as well as future generations that won't have to deal with industrial pollution. Sabotaging this long-standing process only solidifies George W. Bush's record as the most anti-environment president in modern times.