Although 1 in 4 Americans lives within four miles of a designated toxic-waste site, the federal program to clean up the sites has slowed.
Now, key Democrats in Congress are looking to push the program, known as Superfund, back into the spotlight. They're looking not only at its funding levels but also its funding sources. A central issue: whether to restore "polluter pay" taxes on industry to help fund cleanups.
"In some of these sites, the pollution is out of control, meaning it's still dangerous," Sen. Barbara Boxer, incoming chairwoman of the environment and public works committee, said this month. "We have to clean it up."
The California Democrat says she's making Superfund, along with global warming, focal points of her environmental agenda. She has tapped presumed presidential aspirant Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York to chair the Superfund subcommittee.
Superfund, started in the 1970s, has seen a decline in funding and completed projects in recent years. Between 1993 and 2005, funding fell 32 percent – from $1.8 billion to $1.2 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports. During the same period, the number of cleanup sites earning "construction complete" status fell by more than half – from 88 to 40 – the lowest level in more than a decade.
Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers the program, deny funding is an issue. Fewer completed projects merely indicate transitions in construction cycles that can last a decade or more, they say.
"What's been cleared away already are the easier sites," says Susan Bodine, assistant administrator of the EPA's office of solid waste and emergency response. "The sites we're working on now, many of them are complex situations that were also being addressed in the 1990s, and they're still not done. But we're making progress."
Outside observers disagree. "Superfund is in trouble," says Velma Smith, a policy analyst at the National Environmental Trust in Washington. "People in the agency are telling me they're giving up on assessing new sites. They may know a problem exists, but they can't get the money to even go out and assess it."
Many of Superfund's biggest challenges can be traced back to its budget woes, critics and former EPA employees say. For example: While the EPA once had a "trust fund" from taxes on the production of toxic chemicals by chemical and oil companies, authorization for the tax lapsed in 1995. The fund shrank steadily from nearly $4 billion to zero by 2002, despite President Clinton's attempts to get Congress to restore it. President Bush has not asked to renew it.
That means that the share of Superfund programs paid for by taxpayers has risen steadily. From 1993 to 2000, it was less than 20 percent of the overall appropriation. By 2004, the public was footing the whole bill, the GAO reports.
That's why some Democrats, including Senator Boxer, want to reinstate "polluter pays" taxes. Polluters still pay to clean up their contaminated sites when the EPA can track them down. But when companies are bankrupt, the EPA pays. In the past, the "trust fund" helped offset the public cost through a tax on companies producing the chemicals that were being cleaned up.
Those taxes once generated about $1.5 billion a year, according to a June report by the Center for Progressive Reform. Now "with reduced funding, investigation and enforcement has lagged, causing fewer sites to be added to the list because nobody's out there looking for them," says Rena Steinzor, coauthor of the report.
But other analysts say the tax is too broad.
"The tax isn't fair," H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a think tank, told Environment and Energy Daily in an interview. "It's going to target some companies who had nothing to do with the pollution and it's not going to get the companies that did the pollution because many of them are no longer around."
Ms. Bodine of the EPA also sees little merit in taxing chemical producers. "We do have the federal funds we need," she says.
Even where toxic waste cleanup problems are identified, there are problems getting them into the Superfund pipeline. At least 61 sites are currently proposed but not yet added to the 1,241 nonfederal sites on the National Priority List or NPL. Among them are many "orphan" sites where there are no polluters to sue – and federal dollars must be used to clean them up.
Orphan sites are not a new problem.
"We had a number of these orphan sites that we had completed design for cleanup and just needed the money from headquarters for construction – and those dollars weren't forthcoming," says William Muno, former head of Superfund for the EPA's Midwest region. "I've spoken with people since I retired and, from what I understand, the situation is even more acute."
Even completed cleanups have caused controversy. In Ringwood, N.J., this summer, furious residents met with politicians over sludge and other contaminants left on a Ford site the EPA declared clean more than a decade ago.