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Polluters: Clean up your own mess

Polluters: Clean up your own mess
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For millions of Americans — not just those in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Houston and Denver — the notorious names Love Canal, The San Jacinto Waste Pits and Rocky Flats conjure fear of hazardous materials and cancer. These toxic dumping grounds have all at one point been on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Superfund” list of sites to clean up.

From the inception of the Superfund program in 1980 through 1995, the industries that created products that emit poisonous pollution paid for the program through a “polluter pays” tax. But since that tax expired 26 years ago, too often, you and I have largely footed the bill.

That can — and should — change soon. Rep. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerBipartisan bill proposes to add billion in restaurant relief funds White House pressed on evacuating Afghan allies as time runs out Rivers, hydropower and climate resilience MORE (D-Ore.) reintroduced the Superfund Reinvestment Act in the House of Representatives on April 20. The bill would reinstate the “polluter pays” taxes on the petroleum and chemical industries to fund the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program.

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For decades, the petrochemical industry has created and profited from products that often pollute the environment and make us sick. These products become “toxic waste” when companies dump them, leave them out in the open, or otherwise improperly manage them. 

The Superfund cleanup program is responsible for more than 1,300 of the most dangerous toxic waste sites in the country. At about 70 percent of these sites, the EPA is able to identify the polluter or polluters responsible and hold them accountable for at least part of the cost of cleanup. But when the company responsible for the mismanaged waste can’t be found, can’t afford the cleanup or won’t pay, we, the taxpayers, pay for it. 

This gets us to the basic premise behind the polluter pays tax: Instead of waiting until we discover a toxic waste site and then chasing down an individual company, which too often is no longer in the financial shape to compensate for its pollution, we should tax the industry upfront so we have the money to clean up the sites in the future when companies do pollute.

While some sites are small, others contain hundreds or thousands of acres of toxic waste and cleanups can run into the millions of dollars. In an ideal world, the people responsible for the toxic products would not make a mess in the first place or they would clean up their own messes. But we’ve learned not to rely on these companies that pollute consistently, declare bankruptcy to avoid paying, and leave taxpayers with the financial and health burden. We need to make sure that polluters pay to remediate the situation. 

We don’t have time to lose. When money going to the Superfund program decreased shortly after the expiration of the original polluter pays tax, so did the rate of cleanup, leaving more Americans exposed to toxic waste for longer. A new study says that living near a toxic waste site may decrease life expectancy. 

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Today, as climate change-exacerbated natural disasters threaten to burn up, flood, or otherwise sweep that waste into our communities, it’s more important than ever to clean up these areas. Hurricanes Floyd, Katrina, Irene, Sandy and Harvey have all caused flooding at Superfund sites, and scientists say hurricanes are becoming more dangerous

We need substantial funding to quickly, efficiently and permanently clean up Superfund toxic waste sites. The industries that create these pollutants should not enjoy a tax holiday while Americans bear both the financial and health burdens of toxic waste. It’s long past time to prioritize our health over any industry’s bottom line, and fund the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program with polluters’ dollars. The first step: Pass the Superfund Reinvestment Act.

Faye Park is the president of U.S. PIRG, a leading voice for consumer protection and public health across the United States.