Statement of Senator Barbara Boxer
Status of the Superfund Program at EPA
Today the Superfund, Toxics, Risk and Waste Management Subcommittee will conduct an oversight hearing on the Superfund Program at EPA.
After Love Canal in 1980, Congress enacted the Superfund law to address the serious threat posed by the most toxic waste sites threatening public health and the environment in communities throughout the country. At the heart of the Superfund law is a commitment to clean up these highly toxic sites as quickly as possible given the dangers posed by widespread disposal of chemicals, including known carcinogens, at these sites. Also central to the Superfund law is the commitment to ensure that the polluters responsible for the contamination, not the general public, pay for the cleanup.
The Superfund program has made excellent progress. Over the past four years, there has been an average of 87 final clean-ups a year. An Industry Group known as the Superfund Settlements Project issued a report in December 2000 finding that “[i]n the years since 1995, Superfund has achieved levels of operational progress and public acceptance it had never before experienced...EPA deserves to be extremely proud of what it has accomplished in this field...Certainly the end is now in sight to complete the basic remediation at those high priority sites.”
This is an important issue in California. California has the second highest number of Superfund sites in the country, after New Jersey. And, over 40% of Californians live within four miles of a Superfund site.
Anyone who lives anywhere near a Superfund site knows about the terrible damage these industrial sites do to the community. Parents worry if their kids are safe when they find out there is a toxic mess down the street; real estate values go down the drain; and major challenges must be overcome to get the responsible parties to own up to their responsibility. The good news was that fantastic progress was being made, which made a real difference in people’s lives.
Unfortunately, the most important parts of the program-- the pace of the cleanup and the principle that the polluter must pay-- are now under attack.
As recently as May 2001, Administrator Whitman confirmed in writing that 75 National Priority List sites would be cleaned up in 2001 and 65 would be completed in 2002. Just 4 2 months after making this promise, just 47 sites had been completed for the year.
Somehow, 28 of the nation’s most heavily contaminated sites fell right off the list. Twenty-eight communities that worked for years and finally saw the end in sight are now waiting and wondering why. Clearly the problem is compounded when we look at EPA’s new revised projections in the President’s fiscal year 2003 budget which propose that 40, not 65 clean-ups, will be completed in 2002. Another 40 are projected to be cleaned up in 2003.
No question, the slow down is dramatic. I have a chart that illustrates exactly how dramatic the changes are. [Chart 1] This chart shows the final clean-ups achieved and projected since the start of the program. The slow start, the jump up after the Administrative reforms in 1995, and the steep decline with the new Administration.
Interestingly, it is very hard to get a good picture of which sites have dropped off the list. Some communities were told specifically they would not get funding. Then, after a story appeared in the New York Times, Assistant Administrator Horinko directed that an E-mail be distributed throughout EPA. It went to anyone who might know which sites would likely be cut off this year. The E-mail says anyone who calls should be told there is no formal list. The gag order went out and the information was hidden from the people most affected.
I have a chart [Chart 2] that contains the text of one of those EPA E-Mails -- this E-mail makes clear that EPA officials are to follow a script and not identify which sites are being kicked off the list.
I find it totally implausible that half way through the fiscal year there is no list of the sites that will be cleaned-up and those that wont.
Now everyone is in limbo. This makes it hard for those who want their communities cleaned-up to know what to do. I believe that these communities have a right to know where they stand. Some were told they were off the list for funding before the E-mail went out. One of those communities will testify at our hearing today.
The Environment and Public Works Committee asked for documents and information on these issues. It was requested several weeks ago. Despite numerous calls and promises to deliver the information, we have received on Tuesday, weeks late, a skimpy, unresponsive reply to our questions. It is difficult to get to the bottom of this apparently serious problem when such a conscious effort is made to hide information from the American people.
I expect EPA to come here today and to try to convince us that the sites have become more complex -- that garden-variety sites have been cleaned up -- and the tough sites remain.
We will disprove this point today. We have a witness from Montebello, California who lives next to one of the most complex, heavily contaminated sites in the country. She will report on the successful work completed at that site during the previous Administration.
Superfund also faces another major problem that flies in the face of the polluter pays principle. The problem is that revenues from the Superfund tax, previously paid by the oil and chemical industries, is nearly gone. The tax expired in 1995. President Clinton repeatedly tried to get it reinstated. President Bush has specifically said he will not do so in his current budget. This means that a greater and greater share of the cost of Superfund cleanups are borne not by polluters, but instead shifted to all taxpayers.
Funds for clean-ups are still recovered from the responsible parties. EPA says it will continue to enforce against viable polluters. But, that begs the question. In a time of growing demands on limited federal funds, where will the money come from to investigate sites, to pursue responsible parties, to do the work when the polluters refuse. The responsible parties can be sued later. But, the community should not have to wait forever for action. What about the sites where the polluter’s assets cannot be reached, where they go bankrupt? The answer has been: the polluting industries will pay a tax that makes additional revenue available in these cases.
I have a chart here that shows just how the burden has been shifting, with general taxpayers contributing just 18% in 1995. [Chart 3] The number is rising and taxpayer’s will pay 54% of the Superfund budget by 2003.
“Polluter pays” is fair. It has worked well. To shift the burden to all taxpayers is wrong and I will fight to reinstate this fee on industry.
To conclude, let me say that I view Congress’ oversight function as a very important one. We will get answers to our questions and we will not rest until we get some answers and some action. This program is too important to people’s lives to deal with it any other way.