New report: Reinstated ‘polluter pays’ taxes should speed up lagging toxic waste cleanup

Media Contacts
Taran Volckhausen

Former Communications Associate, The Public Interest Network

The bipartisan infrastructure bill reinstated a tax on polluting chemical companies, promising to protect Americans from toxic waste

Environment America Research and Policy Center

WASHINGTON — For more than 20 years, the federal government’s “Superfund” program aimed at cleaning up toxic waste sites has languished for lack of funding. The program was originally funded by a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries, but those “polluter pays” taxes expired in 1995. When President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure package (BIF) into law last month, a polluter pays tax was finally reinstated on chemical industries. 

PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research & Policy Center released a report on Thursday that evaluates the success and failure of the EPA’s Superfund program in 2021 and explores how the reinstated polluter pays tax on chemical production could speed up toxic waste site clean up across the country. Moreover, the report, entitled Funding the Future of Superfund: Addressing decades of slowing toxic waste cleanup, outlined further actions that federal and state governments should take to clean up toxic waste and protect the one-in-six Americans who live near a toxic waste site.

“Most people don’t realize how close they live to one of the most seriously contaminated toxic waste sites in the country or how little we’ve been doing to clean up these sites,” said Jillian Gordner, the report author, who works on PIRG Education Fund’s campaigns against toxic substances. “Toxic waste has no place in our communities, and the longer it’s there, the more environmental and health risks we face. Unsurprisingly, when the Superfund program was fully funded, it did a much better job cleaning up toxic waste sites. With some of that funding coming back, the Superfund program will better serve its purpose to protect people and communities from toxic waste.” 

The EPA’s Superfund program is responsible for cleaning up the most hazardous waste sites in the country. A total of 1,322 sites have been identified for the EPA’s National Priorities List. The chemicals found at these sites, such as arsenic, benzene, dioxin, and lead, are some of the most dangerous in the world. Over the next 10 years, the reinstated polluter-pays tax on chemical production could provide $14.4 billion in funding to clean up dangerous toxic waste sites.

“Toxic waste continues to threaten our waterways and the drinking water of countless Americans,” observed John Rumpler, clean water program director for Environment America Research & Policy Center. “With new funding for Superfund, we can speed the clean up of this legacy pollution. We must also prevent new toxic disasters by phasing out the use of dangerous chemicals like PFAS.” 

Among other priorities, the reinstated tax on chemical production will provide funding for a backlog of 37 sites with cleanup projects that are waiting on funding to begin. As climate-induced natural disasters become more severe, this new funding provides an opportunity to clean up toxic waste sites in the path of hurricanes, flooding and wildfires. 

To speed up the cleanup of these toxic waste sites, the report recommends:

  • The EPA should take into account the impact of climate change when designing the cleanup plan for a site. 

  • Determining the time and money the EPA needs to clean up all Superfund sites on the National Priorities List sites

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

“With new federal funding, we have the best opportunity in decades to finally clean up our nation’s most dangerous toxic waste sites,” said Gordner. “But that is just the first step. To ensure fewer Superfund sites are cleaned up, the EPA will have to start treating the program like the priority that it is.”