Originally posted at on March 24, 2012

In February 2002, the White House unveiled a new policy on global warming that rejected many of the fundamental principles of the Kyoto treaty and emphasizes self-regulation by business. It also waived pollution controls during economic slowdowns. Bush wanted to change the way government has funded environmental cleanups since the Reagan era. And his proposed changes proved to be something of an amnesty for many corporations penalized under the Superfund sites.

The New York Times reported that Bush’s 2003 budget slashed the Superfund’s primary source of income — a tax aimed at industrial polluters that once generated about $1 billion a year. The onus for paying then shifted to the taxpayers, who covered $700 million, or more than 50 percent, of the fund’s budget. The White House also advocated curtailing the roster of sites covered by the fund, down from 1,551. What was the logic behind the cutbacks? Bush staffers told the Times that there weren’t any manageable sites left to clean — only the “megasites” remained, and they were simply too tough to tackle, especially without adequate funding.

The Superfund was established in 1980 as a mechanism to force industry to pay for their toxic spills and general pollution, after years of growing public concern over toxic exposure. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), a watchdog organization in Washington, D.C., estimates that one in four Americans lives within one mile of a Superfund site. That changed, not necessarily because things have been cleaned up, but simply because there just isn’t wasn’t money allocated to tackling our pollution problems.

The reported budget proposals didn’t come as a complete surprise; over the previous few years, the burden of Superfund expenses slowly shifted away from corporations and over to taxpayers. Grant Cope, staff attorney at USPIRG, said Bush’s decision was a momentous shift that warned of a demise of Superfunds.

“I think this marks a major shift in overall policy,” Cope said. “Remember, the last three Presidents, including Bush senior and Reagan, were all in favor of renewing the corporate Superfund tax.” Neither the first Bush nor Reagan administrations could ever be accused of being anti-business, but the Bush administration wanted to rewrite that policy to save corporations up to $1 billion per year in taxes.

Of even greater concern to environmental advocates is that the change saw the disincentive to pollute wither away alongside the Superfund coffers. After all, industrial polluters had been kept in check by the threat of having to fund costly cleanups.

Superfunds today:


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