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Summary of Hearings on Environmental Policy

(6/24/10)

  • June 22, 2010: Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health Hearing on "Oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Program"

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Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health Hearing on "Oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Program"
June 22, 2010

Witnesses
Panel 1
Mathy Stanislaus
Assistant Administrator, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, Environmental Protection Agency
John Stephenson
Director, Natural Resources and Environment, Government Accountability Office

Panel 2
Lois Gibbs
Executive Director, Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Helene Pierson
Executive Director, Heart of Camden
J. Winston Porter
President, Waste Policy Center
John Stumbo
Mayor, Fort Valley, Georgia

Subcommittee Members Present
Frank Lautenberg, Chairman (D-NJ)
James Inhofe, Ranking Member (R-OK)
Max Baucus (D-MT)

The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health met to discuss the current state of Superfund site cleanups and the possibility of reinstating a tax on chemical and oil companies to fund cleanup of sites where no responsible party can be found. The tax expired in 1995, and from 1995-2003 the $5 billion in the fund dwindled. Since 2003, funding for cleanup of so-called “orphaned” sites has depended on congressional appropriation.

Chairman Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said that almost everyone agrees that the polluter should pay for cleanup. However, when the responsible polluter cannot be found or is unable to pay for cleanup, there are only two options: the polluting industry pays, or the tax payers pay. “It’s pretty obvious where I stand, and have for a long time,” Lautenberg stated, “against the polluters and with the tax payers.” Lautenberg introduced the Polluter Pays Restoration Act (S.3164) and has received support from the Obama Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

However, the bill does not have unanimous support. Ranking Member Inhofe (R-OK) called the tax a small business tax, and insisted that the polluters already pay, noting that 70 percent of site cleanups are paid for by the responsible party. He also rejected the idea that a lack of funding has slowed down EPA’s clean up efforts. He said, “The pace of cleaning up Superfund sites has been a prominent issue and remains with us today. However, the logical reason for this is not due to a lack of funding…this is due to the fact that the EPA is addressing larger and much more complex sites.”

John Stephenson from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) refuted Inhofe’s claims. Citing a recent GAO study, he stated, “We found that limited funding to the Superfund program has caused delays in cleaning up Superfund sites and that more resources would likely result in quicker, more efficient and less costly cleanup in the long run.” Stephenson noted that, at the moment, the EPA’s limited resources are spread thinly across states in order to please everyone, resulting in costly and lengthy cleanups.

In response to questions from Lautenberg, Stephenson estimated that it will take decades to clean up the current 1,270 Superfund sites at present funding levels. He also estimated that in order for the EPA to clean up the 75 most critical Superfund sites quicker, it will require 2 to 2.5 times more funding.

J. Winston Porter, president of the Waste Policy Center and a former EPA employee, doubted whether more money would make the EPA more effective at cleanup. He cited a large overhead and the fact that the EPA is not focused on finishing sites. Porter urged that instead of taxing polluters, lawmakers should focus on how EPA spends the money that is appropriated to the Superfund cleanup and create a “culture of completion” in the agency.

Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator at the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, explained that about 80 Superfund sites a year were cleaned when the tax fund was in existence, but since 2003 the average number of sites cleaned by the EPA per year is about 20. Lois Gibbs, who testified before Congress in the hearings leading up to the formation of the Superfund program in 1980, noted that while the program is not perfect there were far less failures when the program was decently funded, and since the cleanup tax fund dried up the program has been ineffective.

Gibbs provided a personal account of what living in a Superfund community is like. She lives in Love Canal, New York, where before it was declared a Superfund site and cleaned up, 56 percent of children were born with birth defects and her children suffered from liver, urinary and central nervous system diseases. Gibbs explained that on top of the health problems Superfund communities face, their homes are worthless and they are helpless to protect their children. Lautenberg sympathized with Gibbs, stating, “The biggest concern for our government has to be how we take care of the children, the future generations.”

Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) spoke about the plight of Libby, MT where 291 of the 3,000 residents have died of illnesses related to asbestos exposure. The town was home to W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine, which shut down in 1990. It was listed as a Superfund site in 2002 and cleanup has just recently begun. Baucus received reassurance from Stanislaus that toxicity tests will direct cleanup and that the town high school, which has considerable amounts of asbestos in the walls, and the track and the baseball field will be given extra attention.

Testimony from the chair, ranking member, and panelists can be found here, as well as a video archive of the entire hearing.

-EB

 

Sources: Hearing testimony.

Contributed by GAP Staff; Elizabeth Brown, 2010 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated June 24, 2010

 
 

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