Obama Proposes New Tax to Clean Up Haz Waste Sites

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The Atlas Tack Superfund site in Fairhaven, Mass., is a former industrial manufacturing facility whose soils, sediments, groundwater and surface water were contaminated with heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and other contaminants. Photo: Flickr/CorpsNewEngland

In the shadow of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, President Barack Obama has backed a cause, no less toxic, that has plagued the United States since the 1980s: superfund sites.

Superfund sites, which are locations polluted by hazardous substances, have lacked the necessary funding for cleanup since the end of the fiscal year in 2003.

As a result, the federal government has always set aside some amount of public money to pay for various forms of cleanup, although this has invariably slowed down the progress the majority of these sites should be making.

While the government was successful in issuing a tax against energy companies for 15 years up until 1995, since that time, Congress has been immovable in renewing the tax as a source for funding.

Supported by the U.S. EPA, the Obama administration is now seeking to reinstitute the tax, a decision that could potentially divide Capitol Hill.

Proponents of the measure argue that taxing oil companies will ultimately relieve the current pressure on taxpayers, who are paying directly out of their pockets for the cleanup and restoration of “orphaned” sites that possess no responsible party willing to pay for the pollution.

Those against the measure believe that energy companies are being unfairly punished since they are not directly responsible for the contamination at individual Superfund sites across the country.

Mathy Stanislaus, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, shared his take on the controversy surrounding the proposed tax with The Boston Globe.

“This is really about who should pay for the cleanup,” he says. “Should it be the taxpayer, who has no responsibility for contaminating the sites, or should it be those individuals who create hazardous substances that contaminate the site?”

The Edison Wetlands Association (EWA), a nonprofit that has long fought for stronger and more proactive Superfund cleanup measures, strongly advocates the reinstatement of the federal Superfund “Polluter Pays” tax.

David Wheeler, who has acted as EWA’s Director of Operations for six years and served under Executive Director Bob Spiegel on “expediting and strengthening the cleanups of dozens of toxic sites in New Jersey,” explains that these Superfund site cleanups are no straightforward matter. In fact, they can “drag on for decades” untended while dangerous toxins continue to seep into the earth and water of residential communities.

“Superfund site cleanups often can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet without a Superfund tax on polluters, the cost falls to American taxpayers,” Wheeler says. “More often than ever before, corporations are declaring bankruptcy to avoid the cost of cleaning up their sites – thus forcing American families to pay for these enormous Superfund cleanups.”

Over the years, New Jersey, where EWA is based, has become the unfortunate epicenter of Superfund sites, earning the title Superfund Central for hosting not only the most contaminated locations but also some of the most polluted.

In the last three decades, the state has received $3 billion in cleanup funds for the 142 hazardous waste sites, though today, only 29 have been removed from the National Priorities List (NPL), according to Ed Putnam of the Publicly Funded Remediation Program for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The Garden State recently revealed that it expects to add anywhere from 15 to 25 more Superfund sites to the NPL in the next five years.

“A healthy, intact Superfund program is critical to cleaning up the toxic legacies of our industrial past and protecting the millions of families who live near these sites,” says Wheeler.

Along with the President and EPA, additional supporters of the federal Superfund tax include Senators Frank Lautenberg, Barbara Boxer and Robert Menendez.

“The reinstatement of the Superfund tax will absolutely expedite these cleanups, bringing the necessary resources to protect human health and the environment by addressing the most urgent threats in a timely fashion,” says Wheeler.

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