Re-fund the Superfund

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Wednesday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Remember Superfund, the emergency response program created to clean up the most polluted sites in America -- places like Love Canal in New York and our very own Times Beach?

It's still around. But for the past 15 years, the pace of its work has slowed to a crawl. Just 19 Superfund sites were worked on last year, down from 89 in 1999.

The problem is especially acute for so-called orphan sites -- properties that were polluted by a person or company that since has filed bankruptcy or disappeared, leaving only a toxic mess behind.

The reason? Money. In 1995, a Republican-controlled Congress refused to renew a tax on polluting industries.

Without it, money in a special federal account used to clean up orphan sites slowly dwindled. By 2003, it was gone entirely.

Now, it may be replenished. Last week, the Obama administration asked Congress to reinstitute the tax on polluters.

It would seem like a no-brainer. But the polluter tax always has been controversial. Business and industry groups already are lining up against its reinstatement.

Oil companies and refiners, both of which would be required to pay the polluter tax, are facing the prospect of significant hikes in the Oil Spill Liability Fund tax.

Horrified by the massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, some in Congress want that tax increased from 8 cents to as much as 49 cents a barrel.

A renewed Superfund polluter tax would be added to that and, no doubt, would be passed to the consumers of petroleum products.

Chemical companies always have complained that the Superfund tax was unfair to them. Renewing the tax, they say, would force them to pick up a disproportionate share of the cleanup costs on orphan sites.

The president of a chemical industry group told the Washington Post last week that imposing a new tax would shift jobs out of the country and threaten the economic recovery at a very vulnerable stage. "It's blatantly inequitable and unfair," he fumed.

The perfect solution, of course, would be for the companies that polluted to pay to clean it up.

But the very nature of orphan sites makes that impossible. The companies that polluted those sites are gone. That's why the federal government is on the hook for the cost of cleaning them up.

Orphan sites now make up nearly half of the 1,279 Superfund sites across the country. That helps explain why progress has been so slow.

A House bill introduced last week by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would raise about $19 billion over 10 years. That's exactly the kind of cash needed to completely clean up many of the worst sites.

Blumenauer's bill would impose an excise tax of 9.7 cents per barrel of crude or refined oil. That would add (gasp) 0.023 cents per gallon to the price of oil.

The bill also would impose taxes of between 22 cents and $4.87 per ton on certain chemicals and hike income taxes on some companies by 0.12 percent. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Think of those extra taxes as an insurance policy against the social costs of pollution. Someone has to pay the cost of cleaning up orphan sites, even if big polluters don't.

For the past 15 years, that someone has been you.