Make Polluters Pay: How public education and advocacy revived the polluter pays principle

After 26 years of citizens footing the bill for polluters’ messes, polluting industries will finally be held accountable for the cost of cleaning up toxic pollution their industries create. 

Toxic threats

After 26 years of citizens footing the bill for polluters’ messes, Congress has passed a “polluter pays” tax on the production of hazardous chemicals, which will hold the polluting industry responsible for the cost of cleaning up the nation’s most dangerous toxic waste sites. An additional polluter-pays tax on oil production is also in the House of Representatives as part of the Build Back Better Act, which is expected to pass in the coming weeks.

These polluter-pays taxes were originally intended to fund the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, which manages toxic waste sites that require the most serious long-term cleanup. Toxic chemicals at these sites include arsenic, lead, dioxin, mercury, benzene, asbestos, and other hazardous chemicals that may increase the risk of cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects, and other serious illnesses. One recent study found that living near one of these sites was correlated with a shorter lifespan. Since these taxes lapsed in 1995, the government lost billions in revenue from the polluting industries that create the contaminants at these toxic waste sites and had to rely increasingly on taxpayer revenue to cover the cost of cleanup. 

However, the money from taxpayers couldn’t make up the shortfall. Without cash from the polluter-pays taxes, cleanup of Superfund toxic waste sites slowed to a crawl over the past 20 years, leaving Americans at risk for serious illness for longer. Of the more than 1,300 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List today, 78.5% have been on the list for more than 20 years. And the backlog of sites awaiting funding grew to 38 last year, the highest number of unfunded cleanups on record.

The severe lack of funding and slow rate of cleanup didn’t go unnoticed; ever since the taxes went away there has been support for reinstating them. Nearly every year, Congressmembers in the House and the Senate — most notably Rep. Frank Pallone, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Sen. Cory Booker, and former Sen. Frank Lautenberg — all have introduced bills to reinstate the polluter-pays taxes, and built bipartisan coalitions of support for their bills. Outside the halls of Congress, numerous national, state, and local environmental groups have called for reinstatement of the taxes. 

Who is against these taxes? The chemical and oil industries who don’t want to pay for the cost of cleaning up the mess their industries cause.

So, 40 years after working to get the original Superfund legislation passed, Environment America partnered with our network of PIRG organizations across the country to launch our Make Polluters Pay campaign, building citizen power from across the country to convince Congress to reinstate the polluter-pays taxes.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration named reinstatement of the polluter-pays taxes as one of its key environmental goals. With the administration’s support, some key champions in the legislature, and our work to elevate this issue in the public consciousness, we successfully moved the polluter-pays tax on the production of hazardous chemicals through the Senate in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, with a vote of 69-30. That’s a huge win, because it shows us that this commonsense idea transcends party lines. Today, the U.S. House of Representatives affirmed that when it too passed this policy.

Here’s what we did:

  • We published reports on the threat of Superfund toxic waste sites and the lack of funding that was slowing down cleanup and putting more people at risk, as well as the additional threat that hurricanes introduce when they collide with toxic waste sites

  • We held a webinar with expert panelists to educate people about the problem

  • We made sure the public heard about the issue by publishing opinion pieces in major publications and talking with the media — from podcast hosts to environmental reporters

  • We gathered thousands of petition signatures to show members of Congress that their constituents want them to take action

  • We worked with coalition partners and legislative champs who are concerned about this issue and made sure that our elected officials knew that their constituents are behind them on this

The reinstatement today of a polluter-pays tax on the hazardous chemical industry will mean fewer Superfund toxic waste sites threatening our drinking water, soil and air. It will mean reducing the risk of cancer and other serious illnesses for millions of Americans and giving them safer communities to live in. 

While today marks a significant step toward our goal of ensuring that polluters, not everyday Americans, are held responsible for the cost of cleaning up their pollution, it’s not the end of our campaign. When Congress takes up the Build Back Better Act they still have an opportunity to reinstate the other polluter-pays tax to fund the cleanup of Superfund toxic waste sites — a tax on the petroleum industry. We’ll keep working to make sure our legislators do what’s right and make polluters pay.


John Rumpler

Clean Water Director and Senior Attorney, Environment America

John directs Environment America's efforts to protect our rivers, lakes, streams and drinking water. John’s areas of expertise include lead and other toxic threats to drinking water, factory farms and agribusiness pollution, algal blooms, fracking and the federal Clean Water Act. He previously worked as a staff attorney for Alternatives for Community & Environment and Tobacco Control Resource Center. John lives in Brookline, Mass., with his family, where he enjoys cooking, running, playing tennis, chess and building sandcastles on the beach.