Millions live near Superfund sites. An oil industry tax in the climate bill could pay to clean those up

How do Superfund sites get the money for cleanup - and how is climate change affecting things? Here's how the new Inflation Reduction Act could answer those questions.

Ledyard King

WASHINGTON – The tens of millions of Americans living near Superfund sites could soon get some welcome news.

The sweeping health care and climate change bill the House is expected to pass Friday and send on to President Joe Biden would reinstate a long-expired tax on oil companies to help cover the cost of cleaning up some of the nation's most toxic sites.

There are about 1,300 Superfund sites dotting the nation, many of which have languished on the to-do list since Congress created the program more than 40 years ago. But money for cleanups has slowed significantly since the primary funding source (which included oil taxes) lapsed in 1995.

"This would be a really great step in the right direction to make sure that the Superfund program is fully funded," said Emily Rogers of U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. "And in doing so, we're protecting not only the environment, but also public health from toxic waste sites."

With that spigot turning back on again, there will be an influx of money to address those sites. But experts caution not to expect major progress overnight given the scope of work that needs to be done.

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How does the Superfund program work?

Superfund sites, which include abandoned industrial sites, mining operations and military depots, have been linked to high cancer risks as well as other diseases.

Congress created the program in 1980 after a series of hazardous waste accidents, most notably in the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls, New York, which reported an alarming rise in skin rashes, miscarriages and birth defects after toxic exposure.

How many people live near Superfund sites?

There are more than 1,800 active or deleted sites. About 1 of every 6 Americans – 73 million – lives within 3 miles of one, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

How was the program funded?

To pay for the program, lawmakers imposed a "polluters pay" tax on chemical and petroleum companies. 

The revenue raised was supposed to be in addition to money collected from those responsible for the actual disasters, though many of those businesses either fought in court or went bankrupt. In the case of those "orphan" sites, general tax money has been used for cleanups.

Shortly after those taxes expired, the Superfund Trust Fund reached its peak balance of $4.7 billion in 1997 and began declining the following year. At the start of this fiscal year, the trust had a balance of $67 million, according to U.S. PIRG.

How many sites get cleaned up each year?

During the 1990s, when the Superfund Trust Fund enjoyed its highest balance, work was completed on an average of 71 sites a year. That annual average fell to 34 from 2001 to 2010 and then 12 from 2011 to 2020. In the 2021 fiscal year, construction was completed at only eight sites, according to PIRG.

"The number of cleanups slowed to a mere trickle," Rogers said.

The decline in money and cleanup activity tracks with the expiration of the taxes 27 years ago. Congress reimposed the tax on chemical companies last year.

How could the Inflation Reduction Act help clean up sites?

In the Inflation Reduction Act the House is taking up Friday, the per-barrel tax on oil is not only being reinstated for the next 10 years, but it's nearly doubling from 9.7 cents to 16.4 cents and will be indexed to inflation beyond that.

Water contaminated with arsenic, lead and zinc flows from a pipe out of the Lee Mountain mine and into a holding pond near Rimini, Mont. on Oct. 12, 2018.  The community is part of the Upper Tenmile Creek Superfund site, where dozens of abandoned mines have left water supplies polluted and residents must use bottled water.

The oil industry has consistently opposed the tax, saying its reimposition would be "unfair (and) not necessary" since 70% of cleanup costs are being covered by responsible parties.

"Congress has appropriately recognized the cost as a broad societal problem and provided general revenues for cleanups," the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group, said in a statement. "Moreover, reinstating the Superfund taxes could result in higher energy costs to hard-working Americans who already struggle to make ends meet."

Will more money help?

Though more revenue from the taxes seemingly enhances the EPA's ability to start new cleanups and speed up ones already in progress, it's likely to take some time before that happens, said Kate Probst, an environmental consultant and expert on Superfund policies.

Congress must authorize the amount of funding for Superfund programs each year, so they still could limit how much work gets done no matter how much tax revenue comes in, she said. Lawmakers could, for instance, simply replace – rather than supplement – the annual appropriation they've been providing for Superfund cleanups so they can spend more on other government programs.

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And even extra money doesn't automatically mean speeded-up projects. The EPA lost hundreds of experienced scientists and regulators during President Donald Trump's administration, and it takes time to train and reload the agency's capabilities, Probst said.

"They need humans to do the contract work to get the money out. They need humans to manage these projects. So there are concerns that even with increased funding, you can't double this program by tomorrow," she said. "That is not the way it works."

How is climate change threatening Superfund cleanups?

The reinstatement of the Superfund taxes comes several months after Congress approved a one-time $3.5 billion allocation to the program as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. The EPA announced it would use $1 billion of that money to clear a backlog of 49 previously unfunded Superfund sites and accelerate cleanup at dozens of other sites across the country.

The timing could not be more pressing, experts said.

Climate change could increase the frequency and intensity of certain natural disasters, which could damage Superfund sites, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress' watchdog arm.

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"Federal data suggests about 60 percent of Superfund sites overseen by EPA are in areas that may be impacted by wildfires and different types of flooding – natural hazards that may be exacerbated by climate change," a 2019 GAO report concluded.

That was the same year a "bomb cyclone" storm pummeled a large swath of the Midwest with heavy snow, drenching rains and historic flooding that made Superfund waste sites inaccessible.