Report: Safeguarding Public Health

The Truth About Toxic Waste Cleanups

How EPA Is Misleading The Public About The Superfund Program
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Superfund is the nation's preeminent law designed to make polluters pay to clean up the nation's worst toxic waste sites. Superfund makes polluters pay to clean up contaminated sites for which they are responsible and also assesses "polluter pays fees" that fill a trust fund intended to clean up abandoned toxic waste sites. In 1995, Superfund’s polluter pays fees expired.

The Bush administration has failed to include reinstatement of the polluter pays fees in its budget proposals, and Superfund’s trust fund is now bankrupt. The Bush administration also has under-funded the program, cleaned up fewer toxic waste sites, and forced taxpayers to pick up more of the bill for the cleanups that are happening. In order to deflect criticism of the administration's record on toxic waste cleanups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided confusing, misleading, and even false information to the news media. This is designed to cloud the debate and convince policy makers and the public that the Bush administration is implementing the Superfund program as effectively as past administrations.

Spokespeople for EPA promote several pieces of misinformation:

EPA claims: EPA continues to aggressively clean up sites and list new sites to the Superfund National Priority List.

The facts: Cleanups have fallen by 50 percent during the Bush administration compared with the pace of cleanups between 1997 and 2000. Site listings have slowed down as well; the Bush administration has listed an average of 23 Superfund sites a year compared with an average of 30 sites from 1993 to 2000, a drop of 23 percent. 

EPA claims: There is still money in the Superfund trust fund.

The facts: The General Accounting Office predicted in July 2003 that the trust fund would be bankrupt at the end of FY 2003. The President’s FY 2005 budget confirms that the trust fund is now empty.

EPA claims: Funding for the Superfund program has not decreased in the past few years.

The facts: Superfund funding decreased by 25 percent during 2001-2004 compared with 1992-2000. 

EPA claims: EPA remains committed to the polluter pays principle.

The facts: Taxpayers will pay the entire cost of cleaning up abandoned Superfund sites this year, compared with only 18 percent in 1995, the year Superfund’s polluter pays fees expired. The Bush administration has opposed reinstating Superfund’s polluter pays fees. 

EPA claims: It doesn’t matter who pays to clean up Superfund toxic waste sites.

The facts: Superfund was founded on the principle that those most closely associated with creating toxic waste sites should bear the financial burden of cleaning them up. Regular taxpayers are much less likely to be closely associated with the creation of toxic waste sites than industries that buy, use, or benefit from toxic chemicals. 

EPA claims: Cleanups are slowing down because Superfund sites are more complex today than in the past.

The facts: The type of sites in the Superfund pipeline has not changed so dramatically in the past three years to warrant a 50 percent reduction in cleanups. The consistent under-funding of the Superfund program is a more likely factor in slowing or halting Superfund cleanups. 

EPA claims: Criticism of the Superfund program harms communities awaiting cleanups.

The facts: Prolonging the time that communities are exposed to toxic waste sites is more detrimental to communities than exposing the Bush administration’s failure to properly implement Superfund. 

By responding to misleading statements made directly by EPA officials, this paper reveals a concerted effort by the Bush administration to mislead the media, public officials and the public at large. The purpose of this paper is to set the record straight.

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