Durbin to EPA: Lack of funding for toxic waste clean-up is irresponsible

Durbin to EPA: Lack of funding for toxic waste clean-up is irresponsible


WASHINGTON, D.C.—U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) recently said that the failure of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fund ongoing clean-up work this year at priority toxic waste sites such as Jennison-Wright Corporation in Granite City raises serious questions about the management and future of the Superfund program. Durbin said EPA’s recent denial of federal funds for the Jennison-Wright site has come despite warnings from local officials that the site poses serious environmental and public health risks. Durbin raised his concerns in a letter to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.

“Just last month, we learned from the Inspector General of the EPA that Illinois officials remain concerned about long-term groundwater threats from the Jennison-Wright site. Now, only one month later, EPA is changing its tune to justify pulling the funding plug,” Durbin said. “This flip-flop in position raises concerns not only about the Jennison-Wright site but also about the overall management and future of the Superfund program. We cannot afford to have the EPA look the other way and hope these problems go away. The federal government must fulfill its mission to protect our communities from toxic waste.”

Durbin said the EPA inspector general’s report issued last month identified the Jennison-Wright site as one of seven sites nationwide for which EPA regional offices requested, but did not receive, any funding this year. Yet, all seven of those sites have been placed on the priority list of new construction starts by the National Risk-Based Priority Panel, the body that determines the priority of Superfund clean-ups.

Under federal law, companies must pay to clean up environmental damage they cause. But, in many of the nation’s most contaminated sites, when toxic waste is discovered, the company that caused the damage is no longer in business or refuses to admit responsibility. Congress created the Superfund program in 1980 to clean up these “orphan” sites.

Rather than placing the financial burden on taxpayers for toxic site clean-ups, for 15 years the Superfund program levied a tax on polluters, and these funds were used to clean up orphan sites. Since those taxes expired in 1995, the Superfund balance has declined from $3 billion in 1996 to a projected $28 million in 2003, causing the Bush administration to delay or partially fund several dozen cleanup operations at Superfund sites throughout the country. Despite these mounting funding problems, the Bush administration has made clear that it does not intend to reinstate the polluter pays principle and intends these funding cuts to be permanent.

The Jennison-Wright Corporation site is a 20-acre, bankrupt, railroad tie-treating facility in Granite City, Illinois. Despite its placement on the Superfund list in 1996, and its status as a known contaminated site since 1992, clean-up has yet to begin due to a lack of funding. While the latest estimate for site-wide clean-up, including soil excavation, off-site disposal and a groundwater pump and treatment system, stands at more than $10.1 million, only $570,000 in federal funding has been obligated to date, and no additional funds will be allocated this year.

“In June, I wrote you to inquire about the priorities your agency has set for cleaning up Superfund sites across the country and in Illinois in particular,” Durbin wrote in his letter to Whitman. “… I am concerned that in the intervening months you not only have failed to indicate a plan for how these sites are to be cleaned up, but have also completely neglected seven priority sites, including the Jennison-Wright Corporation site in Illinois.”

Durbin also encouraged Whitman to reinstate the polluter pays tax program, which includes a corporate environmental income tax, a petroleum tax and taxes on dangerous chemicals.

Durbin wrote, “I hope you will embrace this targeted and highly appropriate source of funding, which will help us reverse the present and worsening funding crisis in the Superfund program and damage to the environment and public health.”

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