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Cleaning Our Toxic Nation

Cleaning Our Toxic Nation

History of Superfund
Details of Superfund Act
Current State of Program

Criticisms of Program

Hudson River Case Study

Possible Solutions
References & Links


Comments and questions to:



Some laud the efforts of the EPA and point to the success of Superfund by looking at sites on the National Priorities List (NPL) that have reached completion in the clean-up process. By the end of 1999, 52 percent of sites on the NPL had been designated complete by the EPA, which means that “physical construction of all clean-up actions are complete, all immediate threats have been addressed, and all long-term threats are under control.” By the end of the following year, the number of sites reaching completion increased to 57 percent (Probst and Konisky 2001). Despite these numbers, there is still much work to be done. In many cases, sites that are “complete,” meaning they have remediation infrastructure in place, will take years or even decades of operations and maintenance to reach clean-up goals. In addition, more sites are being added to the NPL every year. In recent years, the number of completed clean-ups has not kept pace with the number of sites the EPA is asked to deal with. State and local officials ask the EPA to deal with 30,000 releases of toxic waste per year. With the exception of emergency work, completed cleanups declined by more than half – from 88 to 40 -- from 1993 to 2005. Funding also dropped by 32 percent during this time (Christain Science Monitor). The drop in effectiveness can be attributed to the steady increase in sites needing remediation, a decrease in funding, and the political attitudes toward the Superfund program in the past decade.

When Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they attempted to use the Superfund program as a model of government efficiency. Intent on reducing bureaucracy for cleaning up hazardous waste sites, GOP leaders refused to renew the tax that helped alleviate the government’s share of clean-up costs until the program could be revamped. This tax, known casually as “polluter pay,” was levied on corporations that use hazardous materials in production. Since the tax expired, Superfund has entered a period of financial instability. The name Superfund seems inappropriate today, as there exists no actual fund; the trust fund containing money collected from the Superfund tax dried up in 2003, forcing the government to finance clean-up projects with general tax revenue. In cases where polluters are found liable, and are capable of paying a portion of the cost, the government will force them to do so. This is the case for about 70 percent of Superfund projects, but for the remaining 30 percent of projects the government must bear the entire cost. Reports from the EPA’s Inspector General listed a budget shortfall for Superfund of $115 million for 2002; $175 million for 2003; and an estimated $263 million for 2004 (Sissell, Chemical Week). In 2004, the EPA predicted that as many as 355,000 hazardous waste sites would need remediation in the next three decades, at a cost of approximately $250 billion (Janofsky, New York Times). Recent disasters have strained Superfund’s budget; in 2005 the EPA was assessing 54 existing Superfund sites that were in the path of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita for signs of increased contamination. The extra attention paid to such sites means resources are diverted from other projects throughout the country.


Superfund Buzz on Capitol Hill

       In April 2007, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) proposed legislation that would reinstate a tax on oil and chemical companies to help fund Superfund. The proposed act, called the “Superfund Equity and Megasite Remediation Act,” would shift the tax burden from citizens the corporations that are, or could be in the future, responsible for such large-scale pollution.
       Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Chairwoman for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, also recently submitted a bill, called the “Toxic Clean-up Polluter Pays Renewal Act.” This bill would reintroduce the corporate environmental income tax until 2017 (Environment and Energy Daily).

California Senator Barbara Boxer

California Senator Barbara Boxer recently proposed legislation that would reinstate an environmental income tax on corporations to aid the Superfund program. Photo from BBC News.

Last updated:  4/30/2007


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