Superfund tax push spurs rush for new lobbyists

The American Chemistry Council has bulked up its lobbying team to battle the Obama administration’s push to renew the lapsed Superfund tax. 

Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Williams and Jensen have been hired by the Council to lobby specifically on the Superfund tax, according to lobbying disclosure records.

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Michael Steinberg, senior counsel at Morgan Lewis, is one of the nation’s foremost experts on Superfund, a 1980 law that taxes petroleum and chemical companies to help pay to clean up toxic waste sites.

Steinberg is a former Reagan administration Justice Department attorney who handled environmental litigation there and is now outside counsel to the Superfund Settlements Project, a coalition of major companies that has often challenged the toxic waste law in court.

The Council decided to revamp its lobbying team because of rising interest among Democrats in renewing the Superfund tax, according to Walter Moore, the group’s vice president for federal affairs.

The Superfund tax expired in 1995, and Superfund went bankrupt in 2003. Since then, cleanups of toxic waste sites have lagged.

With Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, the issue was seen as percolating.

“This has become incrementally hotter and hotter this year,” Moore said.

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter and draft legislation to Congress calling for the tax to be renewed.

“Our taxes should be paying for teachers, police officers and infrastructure that is essential for sustainable growth — not footing the bill for polluters,” Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, said in a statement announcing the legislation.

Several members of Congress have already introduced legislation to reinstate the tax.

When Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, introduced legislation in March to renew the tax, Moore said the trade group knew it was time to bulk up its lobbying presence.

“It was simply confirmation that we were over that line,” Moore said.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) have all introduced similar bills that would reinstate the Superfund tax in some form.

The Council argues reinstating the tax would hurt U.S. businesses and push jobs overseas. It says European competitors would not face the same tax, which would drive up costs for U.S. companies, making them uncompetitive.

American Chemistry Council President and CEO Cal Dooley, a former Democratic congressman from California, said in a statement that reinstating the Superfund tax would be “a lose-lose for the environment and the economy.”

Moore could not estimate how much reinstating the tax would cost chemical companies, but insisted it could force some U.S.-based factories to close.

Supporters of the tax argue taxpayers now have to pick up the costs for toxic waste sites.

Under present law, when the government can’t find a responsible party to pay cleanup costs, taxpayers are on the hook. Since 2003, Congress has appropriated funds from the general treasury to Superfund.

Aside from Steinberg, the Council will have Williams and Jensen CEO Steven Hart lobbying along with four others, including Patrick Pettey, a former chief of staff to ex-Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.).
Environmental groups have been pushing for a renewal of the Superfund tax since it first expired last decade, and some believe the Gulf of Mexico oil spill will lend new momentum to their effort.

“If there is a silver lining to the BP oil fiasco, it is Congress may be developing an interest in corporate accountability and forcing companies to pay for the messes they create,” said Ed Hopkins, the director of the Sierra Club’s environmental quality program. “That may be giving new legs to the Superfund tax.”

Hopkins said he and others are talking to lawmakers about renewing the tax this Congress. The EPA statement Monday also helps that cause, showing that the White House is willing to lend its considerable weight toward renewal of the tax.

“It is signaling to Congress that the administration is serious about having companies be responsible for cleanup,” Hopkins said. “It appears the administration is willing to invest some political capital in seeing this passed, and that could help a lot.”