New Report: Toxic waste cleanup efforts lag, putting Texans at risk

Media Contacts
Catherine Fraser

Funding shortfalls hinder “Superfund” program’s ability to clean up toxic sites

Environment Texas

AUSTIN — A new report finds that only 10 of the nation’s most toxic Superfund sites were cleaned up in Fiscal Year 2020 — less than one seventh of the annual total in the 1990s. Environment Texas Research and Policy Center found that insufficient funding jeopardized the cleanup of 55 existing Superfund sites in Texas, as well as potential new sites such as the creosote plume underneath the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods in Houston, where two cancer clusters have been discovered. 

“Millions of Texans live near these sites, which have chemicals either proven to cause — or suspected of causing — major health problems,” said Catherine Fraser, an associate with Environment Texas. “Congress’ failure to reinstate a Polluter Pays Tax to ensure cleanup at these sites is a choice to prioritize their bottom line over the lives of Americans.” 

This report comes on the heels of the Texas Department of State Health confirming a second cancer cluster in Houston’s Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens neighborhoods near a Union Pacific railyard, where creosote — a cancer-causing chemical — was long used to preserve railroad ties. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has since called for the site to be named as Harris County’s 22nd Superfund site, a move that would help ensure Union Pacific pays for cleanup of the site. 

One in six Americans lives within three miles of a toxic waste site so dangerous that it is eligible for cleanup under the federal government’s “Superfund” program, but there’s not enough money to pay for that vital work. Texas has the 6th most National Priorities List toxic waste sites in the country, including the San Jacinto Waste Pits and the Jones Road Groundwater Plume in Houston and Lane Plating Works, Inc. in Dallas. 

The Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, an EPA priority for the last four decades, is responsible for responding to the most serious hazardous waste sites in the country, including the 1,327 sites on the EPA’s National Priorities List. The chemicals found at these sites — which include arsenic, benzene, dioxin, and lead — are some of the most dangerous in the world. 

Founded in 1980, the Superfund program originally relied on a simple “Polluter Pays Tax.” But since the tax expired in 1995, taxpayers have paid for the program through appropriations from general revenue. These appropriations have decreased by more than $54 million a year on average since 1999 in constant 2020 dollars, slowing progress toward cleaning up toxic waste sites. This trend continued in Fiscal Year 2020, when cleanup was completed at only 10 sites, compared to an annual average of 71 sites from 1991 to 2000, when the Superfund Trust was at its highest balance. In Texas, 12 toxic waste sites on the National Priorities List are designated as “human exposure not under control.” 

“The Superfund toxic waste cleanup program is essential to protecting our health and safety,” said Jillian Gordner, the report author, who works on U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s campaigns against toxic substances. “Without adequate funding, more people are exposed to hazardous contamination for longer. To clean up the more than 1,300 toxic sites currently putting millions of Americans at risk, we need to secure steady funding that won’t fluctuate with the federal budget process. That funding should come from the polluting industries responsible for these messes, not the public.”

To speed up the cleanup of these toxic waste sites and ensure taxpayers are not required to foot the bill, the report recommends:

  • Reinstating a Polluter Pays Tax to fund the Superfund.

  • Accounting for the impact of climate change when designing cleanup plans for Superfund sites. During Hurricane Harvey, 13 Superfund sites were impacted by flooding and heavy rains. 

  • States and local governments should work with the EPA to notify citizens of Superfund toxic waste sites near them

“If we’re successful in reinstating the Polluter Pays Tax, it will mean fewer toxic Superfund 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 in Texas. And, regardless of where we live, it will mean that we no longer have to carry the financial burden of cleaning up polluters’ messes,” Fraser concluded.

Read the full Superfund Underfunded report here.


Environment Texas Research and Policy Center is a non-profit advocate for clean air, clean water, and open spaces.

TexPIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. TexPIRG Education Fund is part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to getting things done. 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.