As Tax Expires, EPA Struggles To Clean Up Superfund Sites

Fifteen years after Congress allowed the "polluter tax" on oil and chemical industries to expire, nearly 1,300 contaminated sites remain on the EPA's Superfund list, awaiting funding to be cleaned up. Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey has introduced a bill to reinstate the tax, and with the support of the Obama administration, it has a good chance of becoming law. Environmentalists say people living near sites are being held hostage because the Superfund has run dry, but those representing the industry argue they're being unfairly blamed. Independent Producer Scott Gurian reports.

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The Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list is a virtual who's who of some of the most polluted sites in the country. From 1980 to 1995, the cleanup at those sites was funded primarily by a tax on the oil and chemical industries. But that tax was allowed to expire, and the EPA has since struggled to complete its work.

Scott Gurian reports on efforts to reinstate the tax and what it would mean for the residents of Old Bridge, New Jersey.

SCOTT GURIAN: The Superfund controls contaminated areas where the original polluters have either run out of money or gone out of business. Without the tax on industry, its budget comes entirely from taxpayers, and environmentalists say the Raritan Bay Slag site is a perfect example of why that alone is not enough.

On a peaceful day at the beach, people stroll along a path and water laps gently against the shore, but you won't find anyone swimming. That's because the sand is fenced off, and there are warning signs and security cameras to keep people out.

Mr. ROBERT SPIEGEL (Executive Director, Edison Wetlands Association): See the red? There's one layer of big rocks beyond the sand, and then some of them look like bowls that are cut in half.

GURIAN: Robert Spiegel points to what look like roundish, rust-colored chunks of rocks. It's slag from the bottom of old blast furnaces that local companies put here in the late '60s and early '70s to build jetties and retaining walls. Though it's been decades, testing shows the slag still leaches high levels of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals hazardous to both people and wildlife.

With officials estimating the cleanup could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Spiegel - who runs an environmental group called the Edison Wetlands Association - says this is like a mini version of the oil spill in the Gulf.

Mr. SPIEGEL: People in Old Bridge and in Sayreville, they're being held hostage here. They're not going to be able to sell their houses. They can't use this beautiful beachfront that they spent millions of dollars to renovate. And they're being told to wait because the EPA has to clean up the site.

Now, this could be done on an emergency basis if EPA had the money, but Superfund is broke.

GURIAN: Enter Senator Frank Lautenberg, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee that oversees the Superfund. Since the tax on the oil and chemical industries expired in 1995, he and his colleagues have introduced legislation every year to reinstate it. But now with the support of President Obama, it has a good chance of becoming law.

Lautenberg says it's not fair to make taxpayers pick up the tab.

Senator FRANK LAUTENBERG (Democrat, New Jersey; Chairman, Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee): If I didn't cause the problem, I don't want to pay for the problem. I'm willing to pay a share. But I want those companies where the exposure is likely to come from to pay for more of the cleanup than I should as an average citizen.

Mr. JOHN McKINNEY (Attorney): The senator has said that what this is is a "polluter pays" tax. In fact, that's wrong.

GURIAN: John McKinney is a New Jersey attorney who's represented companies involved in Superfund litigation.

Mr. McKINNEY: I like to paraphrase Pogo, the cartoon strip, to say that I have met the polluters, and it's us.

GURIAN: He argues that many sites are former municipal landfills where everyone from individual households to companies to the military sent polluting waste over the years, and he says we all benefited.

Mr. McKINNEY: You had industries that could get rid of their waste cheaply. The society didn't have to pay the true costs of disposal at the time. Now that we do have to pay the true costs of disposal, that should be handled by society.

GURIAN: By which he means taxpayers.

Wherever the additional funding comes from, environmentalist Robert Spiegel warns that until it arrives, sites like Raritan Bay Slag continue to worsen by the day.

Mr. SPIEGEL: That fence doesn't stop the chemicals from going that way every single time that the tide comes in and out or it rains. And so, you know, unfortunately, the sign and the fence doesn't do anything, really. It keeps honest people out. You know? But the chemicals don't know any different, and the toxic waste that's here certainly doesn't.

GURIAN: Senator Lautenberg estimates his bill would generate up to $2 billion a year of much-needed revenue for the Superfund trust fund. He's working with the Senate Finance Committee to get it included with a package of energy taxes after Congress returns in mid-September from its summer recess.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Gurian.

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