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Declining funds slow US hazardous waste cleanup

Start of remediation at many EPA Superfund sites delayed

by Cheryl Hogue
February 10, 2021

Photo shows a sign attached to a chain-link fence. The sign reads: EPA Superfund site. Warning: Hazardous materials present at this site. No Tresspassing.
Credit: US EPA

The federal Superfund program for cleaning up toxic waste sites in the US has slowed over the past 20 years as its funding dwindled, an analysis finds.

In fiscal 2020, a budget shortfall in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program delayed the starts of 34 cleanup projects, the report by the US Public Interest Research Group Education Fund finds. This is the largest backup of pending work since 2005, says the analysis, which relied on EPA data.

The Superfund program draws from a trust fund filled by a former tax on feedstock chemicals, crude oil, and corporate income. That levy expired in 1995. The trust fund reached its peak of $4.7 billion in 1997 and fell to $225 million in 2020, according to the report.

Congress also provides general taxpayer money to the Superfund program, but annual appropriations have declined in inflation-adjusted dollars from 1999 to 2020, the report says.

The EPA prioritizes funding for ongoing cleanup work rather than beginning new projects, the analysis finds. Consequently, declining available dollars reduces the number of sites where cleanup can start, it says.

In 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt selected 21 Superfund sites across the US for targeted action. The analysis finds this led to faster cleanup at those places. However, the report says, “it does not address the larger lack of resources that slows down the cleanup of toxic waste sites” across the Superfund portfolio.

The report recommends Congress reinstate a Superfund tax to shift the financial burden of cleanup from taxpayers to polluters. It doesn’t suggest which industries should pay the tax.

The US chemical industry has historically opposed resurrecting the former Superfund tax.



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