Obama move to reinstate Superfund tax is resisted

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post / June 27, 2010

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WASHINGTON — There is no question that the Superfund program, first established 30 years ago to clean up sites around the country contaminated with hazardous waste, is facing a budget crunch.

For 15 years, the government imposed taxes on oil and chemical companies and certain other corporations. The money went into a cleanup trust fund, which reached its peak of $3.8 billion in 1996. But the taxes expired in 1995, and because Congress refused to renew them, the fund ran out of money.

Now the Obama administration will push to reinstate the Superfund tax. The Environmental Protection Agency will send a letter to Congress calling for legislation to reimpose the tax.

The move will spark an intense battle on Capitol Hill, with Democrats and the administration lining up against oil companies and chemical manufacturers. The measure’s proponents say it will ease the burden on taxpayers, who are currently funding the cleanup of “orphaned’’ sites, where no one has accepted responsibility for the contamination. Opponents suggest that it amounts to an unfair penalty.

“This is really about who should pay for the cleanup,’’ said Mathy Stanislaus of the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. “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?’’

Since the fund ran out of money at the end of fiscal 2003, the federal government has appropriated public dollars each year to pay for orphaned sites, which account for 606 of the 1,279 sites across the nation. But that has slowed the rate of cleanup. The program completed 19 sites last year, compared with 89 in 1999, the EPA says.

“It’s clearly slowed down as the money’s dried up,’’ said Mike Charles, senior manager for government relations at the American Society of Civil Engineers.