The Toll of Superfund Neglect

Twenty-six years ago, just as President Ronald Reagan took office, Congress created the “Superfund,” a multi-billion dollar environmental program designed to inventory and clean up the nation’s worst abandoned toxic waste sites, beginning with the infamous Love Canal. Today, the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) includes 1,244 sites awaiting cleanup. Many have languished on the list for well over a decade and some have awaited cleanup for almost a quarter century, as lack of resources, industry opposition, technical challenges and mismanagement plagued the program.

Superfund’s plight threatens public health across the country. One in four Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site, and approximately three to four million children, who face developmental risks from exposure to environmental contaminants, live within one mile. Over the last decade, cleanups have slowed to a crawl because the program lost its stable “polluter pays” funding base in 1995. A series of Republican-controlled Congresses allowed the industry taxes that support the program to expire and ignored yearly requests by the Clinton administration to reinstate them.

When President George W. Bush took office, the principle that polluters need not pay went from de facto to official public policy. In the absence of political commitment and resources, the number of completed Superfund cleanups fell abruptly in 2001 to 50 percent of previous annual totals. Cleanups were completed at just 40 sites in each of the last three years.

To explain the human and environmental implications of this Superfund neglect, this report, "The Toll of Superfund Neglect,” from the Center for American Progress and Center for Progressive Reform, spotlights five of the worst NPL sites in each of the 10 most populous states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and Georgia. As of April 2006, none of these sites had completed the cleanup process. Looking across these examples produces the following observations:

  • The 50 profiled sites are among the most hazardous in the nation.
  • These sites contain an array of hazardous substances.
  • Large numbers of people, including children and the elderly, live near these sites.
  • Lower-income Americans disproportionately reside around these sites.
  • People of color were disproportionately represented around a significant number of sites.
  • These sites have awaited cleanup for many years.
  • A number of sites remain in Superfund limbo.
  • Some of the sites that have waited longest for cleanup are owned by viable, profitable companies.

The senior federal officials now responsible for the program provide political spin instead of solutions. They tell us that Superfund does not need the tax money it was intended to have and that the popular “polluter pays” principle still applies, even though the tax on oil and chemical companies has expired. There is no better way to illustrate the bankruptcy of such claims than to get back to basics and look at the nation’s worst sites, the dangers they pose and the paralyzed cleanup response.

To see the full report, please go to the following link:

The Toll of Superfund Neglect