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Hundreds of toxic sites await cleanup under Superfund program

In 1980, the Congress approved the Superfund program, generating money to clean up the country’s most hazardous toxic sites by imposing a tax on industries that polluted the most. Since 2000, the program’s purchasing power has declined by 40 percent and over 1,300 sites still need to be cleaned up. Katherine Probst, who has analyzed the program, joins Megan Thompson for more.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    In December of 1980, two years after President Carter declared the first emergency at Love Canal, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act known today as Superfund. The law imposed a tax on industries that pollute the most like chemical and petroleum businesses. That tax generated a $1.6 billion trust fund for cleaning up the nation's most hazardous waste sites.

    So, how is the program working nearly 40 years later? Joining me now is Katherine Probst. She's an independent consultant who has spent more than 20 years researching and analyzing the Superfund program. So Katherine, how about that. 40 years later, is Superfund working as it was first intended?

  • KATHERINE PROBST:

    Well, I think when Superfund was first enacted, we all thought that it was going to be a five year program. EPA could go out and clean up these sites and we would be done. We were all wrong. That's not what's happened. There are over 1,300 sites still on the national party's list needing cleanup. And I think, everybody is surprised by how long it's taken to clean up some of these sites. Some of these sites have been on the list and are not cleaned up for 20-30 years.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    How is the program financed today? Are we still using that polluter pays tax?

  • KATHERINE PROBST:

    No, The the Superfund taxes expired at the end of 1995 and there was still some money in the trust fund and for some years Congress could appropriate monies from those trust funds. This year, they got about $1.15 billion. That money comes predominantly from general revenues, so from all of our taxes. And the real purchasing power of Superfund is now down about 40 percent from what it was in the year 2000.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Can you talk a little bit more about the pace at which these sites have been cleaned up over the years?

  • KATHERINE PROBST:

    It's slow. It's hard to know why that is and one of my concerns is that I think, it's really important that the administration try to figure out why are cleanups so slow. Is it lack of funding, lack of enforcement, technically challenging sites? What is the reason why some cleanups are taking so long?

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The Trump administration has launched something called the Superfund Task Force. What's that all about?

  • KATHERINE PROBST:

    So when the administrator came in, when administrator Pruitt came in, he started a 30-day task force. They issued a report. That report has 42 recommendations, which frankly, is way too many. It looks at a broad swath of the program and the recommendations are in theory to accelerate cleanup and also to stimulate reuse and revitalization of contaminated sites.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Are we seeing these sites getting cleaned up more quickly now?

  • KATHERINE PROBST:

    It's really hard to say. The administration just issued their one year report of the progress implementing the 42 recommendations. And while they have implemented some of their recommendations, it's really too soon to tell whether cleanup has been accelerated. In terms of recommendations that would speed clean up across the board, I don't think that they really did that.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Peter Wright is the president's nominee to run the Superfund program. He's spent nearly 20 years at Dow Chemical which recently merged with DuPont, a company that's actually responsible for polluting many of these Superfund sites. What do you make of that nomination?

  • KATHERINE PROBST:

    Well, I don't know. Peter Wright, personally I haven't dealt with him. I just know that anyone who's had a career at Dow and DuPont is going to have to recuse himself from a large number of decisions and a large number of sites in the Superfund program. So that just presents a challenge. Since they are responsible for a number of the sites, he's not going to be able to be involved in a lot of those decisions looking forward.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Looking forward, about 50 million people in this country live within three miles of a Superfund site. Can you just talk a little bit about the potential for human exposure for these people who live so close to these sites? And is it something that we're paying enough attention to?

  • KATHERINE PROBST:

    According to the EPA's own data, there are over 100 sites of the 1,344 sites on the list where EPA says that human exposure is not under control and there are another 185 sites where they say that they don't have enough information to determine if there are risks at the site. So that's almost 300 sites where there's a potential or current risk of human exposure to contaminants.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    All right. Katherine Probst, thank you so much for joining me.

  • KATHERINE PROBST:

    Thank you very much.

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