Cuts to Program Damage the Environment

Andrew Fitzgerald Adams is a junior at UC Berkeley. Comments should be e-mailed to: [email protected]


Andrew Fitzgerald Adams


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In his first days in office, President Bush slashed taxes paid into the Environmental Protection Agency controlled Superfund, a trust created to clean the dirtiest, most polluted sites in the nation. The Superfund Act which was passed in 1980 taxes the chemical and petroleum industries under the "polluter pays" principle. The taxes on heavily-polluting industries help cover the indirect costs of pollution that exist in the form of asthma, birth defects and cancer felt primarily by those exposed to hazardous waste.

If these industries were going to create dangerous by-products, then the Superfund was formed to find out who was responsible for the toxins, and charge them for the damage. In many situations, these sites have changed hands many times in an attempt to shift the blame and cover the liability involved in dumping hazardous waste. In cases where ownership of a plot was unclear, the tax trust and public funds cover the cost of the clean up.

In most cases, the land's former owners are brought to court and the EPA's expenses recouped. Seventy percent of the time the trust fund is not needed, as the owners of the land can be forced to pay for their damage under the Act.

This leaves the industry tax funds solely for cases in which no liability can be determined. Over the last 23 years the EPA has raised $21 billion to clean different sites. At the same time 550 of 1,551 registered sites have been cleaned up or are in the process of being cleaned under the program.

Santa Clara county, home of Silicon Valley, has the most Superfund sites in the nation. These sites are not only chemical and oil refineries. They include a number of businesses, mostly related to the technology boom in the area. In the last twenty years, Silicon Valley companies have spent over $200 million to prevent hazardous waste emissions, simply because the economic consequences involved are too catastrophic.

So the question arises: why would any politician risk cutting such a popular and fundamentally just program? The answer lies with oil and chemical industry lobbies in Washington. These groups gained a more sympathetic ear beginning in 1994 when Republicans recaptured Congress, and by 1995, they held enough power in both houses to defeat the re-authorization of the taxes.

Due to this loss of revenue, the trust fund has withered from a high of $3.8 billion in 1996 to $28 million in 2003.

This drop-off has led to a reduction in the number of sites entering the program and has forced the public to foot 50 percent of the bill (up from 19 percent in 1994). This means that more old factories are slowly emitting the kinds of carcinogens, toxins and metals that keep doctors up at night. The original purpose of the program is being perverted-the burden of health and clean up costs are being shifted away from private companies to the public.

The harsh reality is that public interest has been trampled underfoot for the good of a few companies due to the Bush administration's ties to industry.

What kind of hell would any politician face for advocating that the citizens of Alaska pay for the disaster the Exxon Valdez spill created? The fact is, there is a direct link between a company's actions and its financial responsibility. It seems so simple that those responsible for exposing the public to dangerous chemicals should pay for the damages. For his deplorable lack of attention, President Bush may just prove to be the modern Nero, fiddling away while our nation's environment degenerates into a state of filth and disease.

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