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AUSTIN, TEXAS and DENVER—In Texas, officials are still trying to confirm whether Texas floodwaters have spread contamination from the toxic waste sites known as “Superfund sites” to residential areas. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says 13 Superfund sites were flooded and potentially damaged by Hurricane Harvey. There is some evidence that the danger from these sites could have been mitigated and limited earlier if the EPA and the Superfund program were better funded. Two changes are needed for the future: 1) “Polluter pays,” should be restored as a funding policy for Superfund; 2) the EPA needs to prioritize a faster response time for testing air and water after a disaster.
The “Polluter Pays” policy should be restored for Superfund sites. The polluter pays principle is enacted to make the party responsible for producing pollution responsible for paying for the damage done to the site. Congress allowed this tax to expire in 1995. By 2003, the Superfund's coffers were empty. As a result, orphaned site cleanups are now financed through taxpayer dollars. The loss of industry tax revenues led to a decline in performance. In 1999, for example, the EPA cleaned up 89 orphaned sites. By 2009, the number dropped to 19 per year.
“We need to go back to polluter-pays fees funding to put the super back in Superfund and deal with toxic sites,” said Kara Cook-Schultz, U.S. PIRG Toxics Program Director. “People harmed by natural disasters should not also have to worry about the effects of toxic sludge spreading into their neighborhoods.”
The EPA's ability to remediate these sites is significantly hampered by lack of funding. In 2010, the EPA wrote a letter to Congress saying that a lack of funds has hampered its ability to conduct environmental cleanups around the country and asked for the tax's reinstatement.
Further, the EPA needs to prioritize testing and remediation at Superfund sites following a natural disaster. As of yesterday, September 4, 2017, Houston health department officials were still waiting for the EPA’s emergency operations department on a response on when testing will be done. Residents deserve to know whether waters contaminated by toxic sites flooded their homes and neighborhoods.
There are at least 13 current Superfund sites of concern, but there are two sites that stand out today and that need immediate testing of nearby areas. First, the San Jacinto Waste Pits located near the San Jacinto River. Toxic sludge was deposited at this site from a nearby paper mill in the 1960s. The site was declared a Superfund site in 2008 after decades of cancer clusters and fish kills in the San Jacinto River. The site contains dioxin, a known carcinogen. The site was temporarily capped in 2011 with rocks and sediment. The site is believed to have leaked to nearby water wells in 2015.
The second site, the Highlands Acid Pits, has been a Superfund site since the 1980s. The site contains unknown toxic sludge from oil and gas, but it is believed that at least one chemical in the sludge is sulfuric acid, which causes respiratory problems, teeth erosion, and can kill fish and other animals. The site is in a flood plain and sits on sandy soil. Because of the sandy nature of the soil, the toxic waste has previously spread to at least one nearby aquifer.
We are exposed to thousands of chemicals per day, and some of these chemicals are harmful to our health and a risk to our children. U.S. PIRG will continue to encourage the EPA to do its due diligence in protecting us from these chemicals.
U.S. PIRG is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.
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