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Superfunds funding is not so super

MY VIEW • Polluters, not taxpayers, should pay for the cleanup of toxic waste sites

Twenty-three years ago, President Jimmy Carter signed the federal Superfund program into law to clean up toxic waste sites and to ensure that polluters, not taxpayers, paid for the program. It also created a special fund filled by fees on the use of highly toxic chemicals and petroleum products to clean up thousands of abandoned waste sites across the country.

President Carter's signing meant that such infamous toxic waste sites as New York's Love Canal, the 20,000-ton toxic chemical disaster that spurred the overwhelming passage of the law, would begin to be cleaned up. It meant that thousands of mothers who led the fight for livable communities after increased miscarriages, birth defects and other health problems plagued their families, friends and neighbors, would have a way to get their hometowns cleaned up.

Since the Superfund program began, the Environmental Protection Agency has cleaned up 886 of the most hazardous toxic waste sites in communities around the country, including six here in Oregon. EPA's enforcement of the 'polluter pays principle' has been the guiding force in making these cleanups happen.

Unfortunately, the success of the Superfund program has been dramatically reversed in the last three years. While the Bush administration touts the successes of the past, far fewer cleanups have been completed under this administration. The program is underfunded, and program costs are shifting from polluting industries to regular taxpayers.

A 2002 inspector general report showed that the Bush administration underfunded the Superfund program by 45 percent compared with amounts requested by EPA regional directors for site cleanups. In Oregon, we witnessed the loss of funding at the McCormick and Baxter site in Portland earlier this year, though thankfully the money was later restored.

Superfund's 'polluter pays' fees, which filled the trust fund and paid for cleanups in which the polluter could not be found or refused to pay, expired in 1995, and President Bush opposes their reinstatement. The trust fund is bankrupt, and the money to pay for the Superfund cleanups is coming from general revenues Ñ in other words, taxpayers' pockets. Americans are now paying for the worst toxic waste sites in the country with their health and their tax dollars.

In the midst of an expensive war and massive deficits, and without a steady stream of income from the trust fund, can we expect Congress and the Bush administration to appropriate the funds that our communities need?

More than 65 million Americans still live within four miles of a Superfund toxic waste site. As much today as 23 years ago, Americans living near toxic waste sites should be confident that the site in their neighborhood will receive the resources necessary to clean it up quickly and completely and that polluting industries will be held responsible for cleaning up the communities they've polluted.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and a number of her colleagues in the Senate are leading the fight to reinstate Superfund's polluter pays fees. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill to reinstate the fees, but Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., has not.

Congress and the Bush administration should heed our communities' call, reinstate Superfund's polluter pays fees and fully fund the Superfund program.