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Saving Superfund

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Superfund one of the greatest pieces of the Carter administration. Actually forcing companies to pay up for their legacy of pollution was just what the doctor ordered. It worked great. And then Gingrich came along and took advantage of the growing corporate obsequiousness of Republicans to eviscerate the law by refusing to fund it, which Bush the Dumber followed up on. Part of the Biden infrastructure plan is to give Superfund a big ol’ shot in the arm.

Biden’s infrastructure plan includes an array of climate-forward investments, including funding for a Civilian Climate Corps and the mass removal of lead water pipes. Although Superfund sites might not be seen as traditional infrastructure, the land they occupy, once remediated, could support future bridges, roadways, or parks. As Jeff Merritt, the head of urban transformation at the World Economic Forum, explained to me, “At the end of the day, if the core of that is rotten, whether you are talking about a toxic site or a site that for some reason isn’t advantageous, it’s going to be a lot harder to build value on top of that.” 

Biden’s proposal uses a few different approaches. If passed in its entirety, it would allot $5 billion to remediate Superfund sites, as well as brownfields, which tend to be more mildly contaminated. It would also reinstate fees on the biggest polluters—primarily chemical and petroleum companies—in order to rebuild the Superfund Trust Fund, a pot of industry-supplied money that historically supported the program. Essentially, the infrastructure plan would jumpstart clean-ups of toxic sites across the country.

Polluter fees were an integral part of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which established the Superfund. But in 1995, under former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s watch, the fees expired, and they haven’t been reinstated since. Since this gutting of the backbone of the Superfund’s finances, the EPA has depended on federal tax dollars, with polluting companies contributing nothing. 

Typically, Superfund identifies partially responsible parties, or the companies that polluted the area, and makes them pay for the cleanup. In a fraction of cases, those companies no longer exist, which is when the EPA picks up all the slack. Right now, there are 34 of these unfunded sites, which are waiting like lame ducks for the EPA to take action. But without funds, it can’t. 

Despite relying on multi-billion-dollar companies—like chemical giant DuPont and General Electric—former EPA officials say the Superfund itself needs to have money in reserve to push companies to action. And since 2003, it’s been broke. 

It can take decades rather than years to clean up Superfund sites; some sites identified as an imminent threat in the 1980s are still awaiting action. Intensive scientific research, testing, and negotiations required for Superfund cleanups is in part what drags out the process. And in recent years, a lack of finances has compounded the problem.

There’s no question that cleaning up our most polluted sites so we can do something with them again and people can live healthy lives is absolutely part of any reasonable definition of infrastructure. We need a complete return to the pre-1995 version of Superfund and this is a positive proposal to move us in that direction.

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