Reinventing Superfund: The Clinton Reform Proposal and an Alternative

Executive Summary

Superfund has been universally criticized as an expensive, largely ineffective environmental cleanup program. Even if it worked as intended, it would provide insignificant benefits to human health and the environment. As currently administered, it is fair to say that the program causes more fiscal harm than environmental good.

The original Superfund was to be a five year $1.6 billion program intent on cleaning up at least 400 sites. Cleanup at Superfund sites has proceeded at a snail-like pace and the cost of cleanup is enormous.

  • Fewer than 20% of Superfund sites have been cleaned to date.
  • Fewer than 20 sites were cleaned during the first seven years of the program.
  • As of March 1994, construction and cleanup had yet to begin at almost half of the now 1,232 sites.
  • The average cost of a Superfund cleanup now exceeds $25 million per site.

To justify the high cost, Superfund was touted as a “polluter pays” policy. However, under Superfund, polluter and non-polluter alike overpay. Past or present owners or operators of a site, the producers of potentially hazardous chemicals, and even the transporters of the waste are potentially responsible under Superfund. Superfund liability is retroactive, and liability does not necessarily end if a site is removed from the Superfund National Priority List.

Although the administration addresses several of these concerns, it fails to deal successfully with the force that is driving Superfund cleanup costs: the absurd risk assumptions. By assuming that extremely unlikely—sometimes physically impossible—events will occur in the future, EPA is able to create the impression of risk where no actual harm will occur.

EPA will generally take cleanup action if the estimated risk of developing cancer from exposure to the site’s contaminants is greater than one in 10,000. Viewed in the light of the normal rate of total cancer incidence for American—approximately one in four—expending tremendous resources to reduce cancer risks by less than one-hundredth of one percent seems absurd.

Many community leaders would prefer to divert resources away from Superfund activities toward more pressing priorities—programs that will prevent real, as opposed to hypothetical, premature deaths. As presently written, Superfund does not permit communities to make the choice.

The administration’s proposal utilizes an administrative back door to approach the “environmental justice” issue. After more than a decade of trying, EPA has failed to establish any reasonable correlation between Superfund site pollution and specific diseases in surrounding communities. The fact is that if the federal gevernment truly desired to help people in poorer communities, it would abandon the pretense and stop wasting money on the cleanup projects. There is ample evidence that most poor communities have far more pressing public health concerns than Superfund remediation.

Superfund imposes federal control on what are essentially state and local problems. Instead of making further attempts to salvage a failed federal program, Superfund should be turned over to the states as much as possible. Remodeling Superfund as a revolving state loan fund would be a dramatic improvement over the status quo. This would place authority for cleanup decisions closer to the communities directly impacted by the outcomes, and would sunset the existing Superfund tax structure.

Under a revolving loan program, the monies must be paid back to the federal government over time. This would result in:

  • stronger incentives to avoid waste and inefficiency,
  • development of more accurate user fees and charges,
  • selection of less costly cleanup alternatives,
  • greater flexibility in the system,
  • more community control in establishing local environmental priorities.

Superfund is creating health risks where none existed before. Cleanup of a site often creates a risk of construction accidents or exposures to unearthed materials that are larger than preexisting risks from the sites under remediation. Moreover the unnecessary stress inflicted on nearby residents can actually be significant.

A greater, hidden cost of Superfund is that it is economic dead weight. Lowering the income of individuals can be harmful to their health. Superfund is almost certainly an example of a government program that “kills” more people than it “saves.” Superfund activities create widespread anxiety about potential health risks and divert attention away from far more real threats to human health and the environment.

Superfund is driven by fear. By granting local communities more autonomy and responsibility over Superfund sites, better results will be produced. It is time to reinvent Superfund.