Tax on Superfund polluters gets new life

Pallone makes push for his bill again in Congress. This time there’s new support
Credit: (AP Photo/Kimberly Chandler)
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Once again, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone is reviving the Superfund Polluter Pays Act, a bill he first introduced to Congress in 2005.

His bill has never made it out of committee.

Now Pallone, however, is hopeful.

The bill calls for the reinstatement of a tax on chemical and petroleum companies to help pay for Superfund site cleanups. And this time, it is included in President Biden’s American Jobs Plan.

“The bottom line is that we have a president in Joe Biden who’s serious about cleaning up environmental pollution and protecting communities, particularly those who live near these Superfund sites,” said Pallone (D-6th) on Tuesday. “I think we have an opportunity now for Congress to weigh in and say, yes, this is something we want to do.”

The bill is co-sponsored by U.S. Rep Bill Pascrell (D-9th), Donald McEachin (D-VA 4th), and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR 3rd). Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also plans to introduce companion legislation in the Senate.

READ: Does climate change increase risks for New Jersey’s Superfund sites?

READ: Leveraging fiscal power of state pension system against Superfund cheats

New Jersey has 114 Superfund sites, the most in the country. The state also leads the nation in brownfield sites, which are abandoned or under-utilized industrial properties — gas stations, for example — that don’t contain wastes that are as toxic as those found at Superfund sites but are nevertheless hazardous to human health.

Superfund sites: The New Jersey connection

About 50% of New Jerseyans live within three miles of a Superfund site, and a much higher percentage adjacent to brownfields. Many Superfund sites across the state, from Toms River to Edison to Ringwood and beyond, have been linked to serious community health problems, including infertility, birth defects, respiratory complications, and childhood and adult cancers.

When the federal government created the Superfund program in 1980, it set up a trust fund to pay for much of the cost of the cleanup of sites that did not have a clear responsible party — so-called “orphan sites.” The fund was replenished by levies on petroleum and chemical companies and their products, from per-petroleum-barrel and feedstock excise fees to environmental taxes. Each year through the 1980s and early ’90s, billions were added to the trust fund.

Credit: (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th)

But, in 1995, Congress allowed this “polluter tax” to expire, a move that Pallone and other House members opposed at the time. Since then, under Republican and Democratic administrations, the trust fund has withered — in 1999, appropriations for the fund were $2 billion; in 2019, they were $1.2 billion Today, the fund is replenished almost entirely by taxpayer dollars, thus the burden of the cost of the cleanup of orphan sites falls on ordinary Americans.

“Too many New Jersey communities have suffered beside Superfund sites that have languished without attention for decades,” Pascrell said in a statement released by his office. “Just because Congress hasn’t been able to reauthorize the Superfund tax is no excuse for asking our Garden State neighbors to carry on their shoulders the health and financial burdens of this catastrophe.”

According to the Environmental Protection Network, an independent consortium of former Environmental Protection Agency staff and political appointees, many of the country’s worst Superfund sites are orphans. The group also notes that, since 1999, the EPA, which oversees the Superfund program, has tended toward “partial deletions” of sites on the Superfund list, meaning that while a site has been deemed cleaned up, areas of it remain hazardous to human and environmental health. The group also notes that the number of unfunded cleanup projects has nearly tripled since 2016.

‘Lack of funding’

“It’s critical to get funding to help not only stabilize [New Jersey’s] sites but to clean them up,” said Jeff Tittel, state director of the Sierra Club. “Because of lack of funding, these sites sit there without being cleaned up, leaking contaminants into the groundwater and the environment around them, affecting communities and public health.”

The Biden Jobs Plan would not only reinstate the polluters tax, but also inject $5 billion into the Superfund program, to jumpstart remediations as well as facilitate site redevelopment. With the Biden administration’s heightened attention on the program, the Superfund Polluter Pays Act, Pallone said, finally “has a real chance of becoming law.”

The additional federal investment and tax would further boost the Murphy administration’s ongoing, $15-million effort to clean up the state’s brownfield sites, particularly those in environmental justice areas, where pollution has negatively impacted public health and hindered economic growth.

“This should be a no-brainer,” Tittel said, referring to the bill’s fate. “However, since the Superfund Tax laxed, it’s been almost impossible to get this done, especially under Republican Congresses or Republican Presidents. They seem to care more about protecting polluters’ profits than protecting the health and safety of the American people. You also have to understand that a lot of these Republicans and some Democrats get a lot of funding from the same polluters that don’t want to spend the funds on the cleanup.”

Pallone agreed on Tuesday that there has long been bipartisan congressional support for his bill, despite its languishing for 15 years. If it were to fail to gain enough Republican support again, however, it now has a new advantage, since it’s wrapped into the Biden Jobs Plan. “I don’t think there’s the level of Republican opposition to this as there would be to other kinds of tax increases, so I think there’s a real opportunity” Pallone said. “But it could also end up going through [budget] reconciliation.”

READ: NJ entices developers with loans, tax credits to remake brownfield sites

WATCH: Ringwood still plagued with contamination