Energy & Environment

EPA won't require industry to guarantee funding for toxic waste cleanups

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is declining to require oil and gas, coal, chemical and mining companies to have insurance to cover major spills and accidents.

Critics say the final rule, announced by the agency Wednesday, poses the greatest risk to communities of color and low-income communities that most often live in the shadow of polluting industries.

"EPA has found that existing environmental regulations and modern industry practices are sufficient to mitigate any risks inherent in these industries," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a release announcing the rule, adding that "the financial risks from facilities in these industries are addressed by existing state and federal requirements."

The rule targets the financial assurances the Obama administration argued should be required by major polluters, ensuring companies have sufficient means to cover any costs related to accidents in order to avoid dipping into Superfund hazardous waste cleanup coffers.

The U.S. has more than 1,300 Superfund sites on its cleanup list, but many have become "orphaned" by companies that go bankrupt and can no longer fund the cleanup.

"This is all so basic. It would just require that those companies have proof that if there is a release or spill of hazardous substances that there would be funds to clean it up so it's not left on the taxpayers," said Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, who added that the Obama-era rules targeted "polluters that had most likelihood of creating releases."

Typically that takes the form of buying accident insurance, something environmentalists see as another layer of protection, as insurers will often require additional safety protocols from companies, like building containment areas so spills don't travel far beyond a facility.

"They will come and look at a facility and require that industry has certain safeguards in place so they won't have a spill," Evans said. "Industry will have to operate more safely if it has to get and maintain financial assurance - that's just the way the world works."

Environmental groups are likely to pressure the incoming Biden administration to revoke the rule. 

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