Buying their way of out cleaning up
In 1995, Congress killed a special tax on the chemical and oil industry that had been used to pay for Superfund cleanups of hazardous waste sites. This summer, a special coalition of chemical and industrial manufacturers is working to make sure the tax stays dead.
The nine companies that make up the Superfund Settlements Project say they have already paid out more than $2 billion in Superfund cleanup costs since 1980 and have spent hundreds of millions of dollars more to pay the federal tax that funded the program until 1995. Now, in testimony before Congress earlier this year, the companies say the Superfund program "has largely accomplished its goals" and should be significantly scaled back.
The Bush administration seems to agree. Earlier this year, the White House announced that it would not seek to reauthorize the industry tax. Instead, Bush wants to transfer $700 million from the general treasury to pay for Superfund.
At its peak in 1996, the Superfund program had about $3 billion in its coffers to pay for cleanups. Without the industry tax to replenish it, the fund is now nearly empty. By 2003, it will have shrunk to just $28 million and by 2004, the fund will be depleted. Although the Environmental Protection Agency can generally get polluting companies to pay for the cleanup about 70 percent of the time, the industry tax covered the "orphaned" sites-the ones where the company is bankrupt or no longer exists. Now, money for those cleanups will have to come from general tax revenues.
That lets polluting industries off the hook, says Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). This summer, Boxer introduced a "polluter pays" bill that would reinstate the industry tax on oil and chemical companies, and another tax on a wide range of companies that use and dispose of hazardous waste. Boxer said her bill will "help ensure that the cleanups continue, but not at the expense ofÃ¯Â¿Â½the American taxpayer."
The nine companies in the Superfund Settlements Project insist that it's not fair to single them out for a tax.
"What we're talking about here are the orphan sites, and it really ought to be a general societal responsibility to clean them up," Michael Steinberg, one of the project's representatives, told "The Buffalo News." "Why point to any one industry to do it?"
The nine companies that make up the coalition are a "Who's Who" list of corporate heavyweights: DuPont, Honeywell, General Electric, General Motors, Ciba Specialty Chemicals, Solutia, United Technologies, IBM, and Waste Management Inc. So far in the 2002 election cycle, the companies have given nearly $3 million in individual, PAC and soft money donations, 64 percent to Republicans. The companies also spent more than $28 million on lobbying in 2001. General Electric, the coalition's biggest contributor, has given $1.2 million and spent more than $15 million on lobbying in 2001.
The nine companies gave Bush more than $136,000 during the 2000 presidential election. The oil and gas industry as a whole contributed $1.8 million to the Bush campaign. Chemical manufacturers kicked in another half million dollars.
Sen. Boxer has received more than $78,000 from environmental interests so far during her six-year Senate term, making the environmental community one of her top campaign contributors. Environmental interests have contributed nearly $250,000 so far to federal candidates and committees in the 2002 election cycle, 95 percent to Democrats.
Although Boxer's bill is currently sitting in committee, the issue received a lot of attention this summer when a report by the EPA's inspector general found 33 sites across the country had not received adequate funding for cleanups. Boxer and 35 other Senate Democrats sent a letter to President Bush demanding to know why the money had not been granted.
The EPA responded that the inspector general's July report showed only a "snapshot" in time and that additional funding would be granted in the coming months. Since the report was released, 11 of the 33 sites have received additional funding.