Superfund: Polluters Already Pay

BACKGROUND: The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a Ralph Nader organization, is charging that a March 11 Senate vote defeating a “polluters pay” Superfund amendment offered by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) means that polluters are getting a “holiday” from their legal responsibilities.

In a March 11 press statement, U.S. PIRG Environmental Health Advocate Julie Wolk said: “By refusing to reinstate Superfund’s polluter pays fees, the Senate voted to extend a 4 million dollar per day tax holiday for polluters and continue charging regular taxpayers for toxic waste site cleanups. Since Superfund’s trust fund went bankrupt, toxic waste cleanup competes with every other government program for scarce taxpayer money… The Bush Administration continues to let polluting industries off the hook and leave regular taxpayers to pay the cleanup costs, allowing toxic waste sites to languish in communities around the country.”1

TEN SECOND RESPONSE: The “polluter pays” proposal is simply an excise tax on law-abiding chemical and oil companies that would have been passed on to consumers, who tend to be taxpayers.

THIRTY SECOND RESPONSE: Under current law and practice, polluters already clean polluted sites whenever the federal government can identify the responsible parties. The “polluter pays” tax would simply force law-abiding companies who practice sound environmental practices (and their customers) to assume responsibility for the actions of others.

DISCUSSION: The “polluter pays” proposal is as much about politics as it is about pollution — perhaps more so.

As Environment and Energy Daily reported on March 26, 2003 about the “polluter pays”amendment:

A Democratic aide said the amendment’s sponsors knew the amendment would fail, but pushed for a vote anyway, in hopes of turning the issue into a political lightning rod during the 2004 election cycle by being able to say that those who voted against the amendment voted against the notion of ‘polluters pay.’ Sources said Democrats have been polling voters and planning outreach efforts toward that end. Democratic leaders not only see symbolic value to the fight fight over who pays for Superfund cleanups; if they are someday able to shift the costs back to corporations, it could shift the Superfund program off the general budget, freeing up dollars for social programs favored by liberals.2

Will Hart of the Senate Environment and Public Works had this comment March 11:

The “polluter” already pays! When there is an identifiable and viable “polluter,” consistent with the law, those companies are held liable for cleaning up or paying for the cleanup of that site. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency’s focus on making sure that the polluter does in fact pay resulted in 87% of new cleanups borne by Potentially Responsible Parties in 2003 — exceeding the Agency’s historical 70%. Federal Government spending on the Superfund program is directed at cleaning up “orphan” sites, those sites where there is NOT an identifiable and viable party.

Advocates of reinstatement of the Superfund tax will likely also bombastically decry “cuts” in the Superfund budget as another reason to implement the tax. Their reasoning on this point is mythical as well and based on an inaccurate GAO report which fails to reflect that Congress continues to provide level funds to ATSDR, NIEHS, and Brownfields, but from separate appropriations. For fiscal year 2005, the President requested $1.4 billion for the Superfund, a $124 million, or 10%, increase over the 2004 Consolidated Appropriations level. This increase reflects a 48 % boost targeted for the Superfund’s remedial program, which will allow 8-12 additional construction starts in 2005 and a similar number of additional completions by 2006.

…In a time of already drastically increasing fuel and energy costs amid a rebounding economy, one wonders why Democrats would even consider heaping on top these kinds of additional costs which get passed on directly to the American consumers through higher prices at the gas pump.

If members of Congress are sincere in their support for the Superfund program, they should support the President’s budget request, not levy a burdensome tax increase on businesses and consumers that would hurt or economy and create job loses for potentially thousands of hardworking American citizens. Reinstating this tax at the same time complaining about U.S. job losses is exactly the same type of Democrat double talk we are getting more and more accustomed to. On one hand they claim to promote U.S. jobs, but then try to push through unfair taxes that only hamstring struggling businesses.3


EPA Superfund Website at

Angela Logomasini, “EPA Uses Superfund Tax to Target the Innocent ,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, 9/5/03, at,03653.cfm

Senate Fails to Make Polluters Pay for Toxic Waste Site Cleanups,” Press Release, U.S. Public Research Group, March 11, 2004, available online at

by Amy Ridenour

Contact the author at: 202-507-6398 or [email protected]
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