Report: Safeguarding Public Health

Empty Pockets

Facing Hurricane Katrina's Cleanup with a Bankrupt Superfund
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Since 1980, the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program has worked to protect the one in four Americans, including more than 10 million children, who live within four miles of the nation’s most polluted toxic waste sites. After 25 years of experience, the Superfund program has evolved to protect Americans from toxic chemicals released when industry collides with nature, such as hurricanes and floods. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now must use this experience to face its biggest challenge yet—cleaning up the toxic pollution left behind after Hurricane Katrina flooded the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately, funding shortfalls plague the Superfund program and may hinder its ability to respond to Hurricane Katrina and address the thousands of other polluted sites littered across the country.

In the 1970s, parents in Love Canal, New York, a community built upon a toxic waste dump, galvanized the nation when they demanded action from their elected officials to address the health problems afflicting local children. In response, Congress created the Superfund program in 1980 as the preeminent cleanup program for the nation’s most contaminated and toxic sites. Since its inception, the Superfund program has performed more than 7,000 emergency removal actions and permanently cleaned up 294 sites on the National Priorities List of the most toxic sites. Over the years, the Superfund program has evolved beyond just conducting cleanups at traditional hazardous waste sites; the Superfund program now supports response actions triggered by terrorism, natural disasters and other catastrophes. The Superfund program helped respond to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the anthrax contamination in the U.S. Senate, the devastating Midwest floods in 1993, and the initial federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In addition, the Superfund program has functioned as a safety net in hundreds of lesser-known situations when hazardous substances threatened communities after nature and industry collided. For example:

• The Gurley Pit Superfund site is situated in the floodplain of 15 Mile Bayou in northeast Arkansas. When 15 Mile Bayou flooded in 1980, water surged into Gurley Pit, releasing 500,000 gallons of hazardous waste onto residences and farmland. The Superfund program cleaned up the site and ensured that heavy rainfalls and flooding will no longer present a threat to local residents.

• In 1999, Hurricane Floyd dumped seven inches of rain over a 24-hour period in southeastern Pennsylvania. The resulting floodwaters carried toxic contaminants from an upstream industrial area into a residential neighborhood. Using the Superfund program, EPA identified two old landfills that were leaching a toxic brew into adjacent waterways. In 2001, EPA began planning long-term cleanup actions at these two sources to protect downstream residents.

• In 1997, a severe flood at Milo Creek washed toxic mining waste from the Bunker Hill Mine and Metallurgical Complex in northern Idaho onto 50 homes. The Superfund program removed the toxic waste from the homes and is stabilizing the Milo Creek channel to prevent future floods from dumping more toxic mining waste on downstream residents.

Hurricane Katrina presents EPA and the Superfund program with its biggest challenge yet – cleaning up after a flood of epic proportions. Hurricane forces and floodwaters that hit the heavily industrialized Gulf Coast in August 2005 created a stew of chemicals, sewage, oil, and pesticides that dispersed and settled widely. In the days and weeks after the hurricane, the Superfund program helped officials sample water for toxic chemicals, contain oil spills, remove barrels containing hazardous substances, and collect and dispose of hazardous waste. The full extent of these toxic releases will take years to understand and even longer to clean, but Superfund will continue to play a pivotal role in making the area safe again for local residents.

Unfortunately, the Superfund program must confront the challenge of cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina—and addressing thousands of other still contaminated sites across the country— with inadequate funding. The “polluter pays” fees levied on industries and chemicals that contribute to Superfund sites expired in 1995, leaving the program without a dedicated source of funding. Consequently, financial reserves in the Superfund trust have declined from a surplus of $3.8 billion in 1996 to levels that approach or reach zero at the end of each fiscal year, forcing average American taxpayers to shoulder more of the cost for toxic waste cleanups. In addition, Superfund’s financial demands have outstripped federal appropriations, leading to program funding shortfalls that slow or stop site cleanups and hinder EPA’s ability to address the backlog of contaminated sites.

As a result, the eve of Superfund’s 25th anniversary comes at a time when the program faces an uncertain future. To ensure that polluters, rather than regular taxpayers, pay to clean up Superfund sites, the polluter pays fees must be reinstated. Reinstating these fees will once again ensure that the Superfund program receives the funding it needs to function properly. In addition, a fully-funded Superfund program will be able to meet and overcome future emergencies and program challenges. In an era of federal budget deficits and program spending cuts amounting to billons of dollars, providing a reliable source of funding for the Superfund program with the polluter pays fees is sound public policy that will do much to protect public health and the environment.

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