Whole Lotta Hot Air
The truth about Superfund.


Earth Day came and went last week, and despite the most dire predictions of the Green Lobby, the overwhelming majority of Americans are still breathing. To hear many of the environmental activists over the last week, this is no thanks to the Bush administration, which evidently has gutted eco-friendly funding.

”When it comes to the environment, the current administration has routinely put polluting special interests before the public interest,” said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth Action, in a typical statement. “At a time when 40 percent of our nation’s waters are still too polluted for fishing and swimming, when 30,000 Americans die prematurely each year due to air pollution and when hundreds of toxic waste sites threaten our communities, our nation simply cannot afford another four years of George W. Bush.”

Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) spells it out even more clearly. “George Bush Passed The Burden Of Cleaning Toxic Sites From Polluters to Taxpayers,” he says on his website, in capital and bolded letters.

But in the case of funding toxic-chemical cleanups–the so-called Superfund, a perennial favorite of the environmental lobby–this turns out not to be true. Consider the two issues at stake: Who pays, and how much?

Until nine years ago, the Superfund was maintained by three separate taxes. Two were fees levied respectively on barrels of petroleum and other toxic chemicals. The third was a relatively small tax levied on all corporations making more than $2 million, regardless of whether those companies used toxic chemicals. Those taxes expired in 1995, and though nominally pushed by President Clinton, were not renewed by the GOP-controlled Congress. Thus far, Bush’s great sin is in not raising the issue again.

And with good reason. Far from whacking corporate America, those fees and taxes only hurt consumers, to whom the financial burden was passed in the form of higher prices at gas stations and stores. Since the various taxes expiration in 1995, money to fund toxic-pollutant cleanups has simply come from general tax revenues.

And contrary to the claims of environmental activists, it’s Republicans who seem best at funding these cleanups.

At first glance, the Green Lobby appears to have a point. In 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration, inflation-adjusted Superfund appropriations totaled $1.5 billion–$231 million, or 15 percent, more than last year’s amount. Overall, Superfund appropriations under Clinton averaged $1.6 billion per year, whereas under Bush they have averaged just $1.3 billion. That sounds an awful lot like the nasty Republicans have been gutting environmental cleanup.

But a closer look at those inflation-adjusted funding levels tells a different story. In 1992, for example, the Democratic-controlled Congress and President George H. W. Bush appropriated $2.038 billion for Superfund. In 1993, when Clinton took office, that same firmly Democratic Congress allotted $1.858 billion–a nine-percent cut from the previous year. In 1994, the cuts were more severe. Democrats appropriated $1.634 billion, a 12-percent reduction from the previous year.

With the arrival of the GOP Revolution in 1995, Superfund cuts slowed to six percent, and even went up in 1996 and 1997, by four and 6 percent, respectively. The last three years of Clinton’s presidency saw further erosion of funds, at 4.5, 9.2 and 10.7 percent.

All in all, from the last year of the elder Bush’s administration to the last year of Clinton’s, appropriations for Superfund fell by a whopping 34.5 percent.

Surprisingly, funding under the current administration for the program looks positively Democratic. In 2001, Bush’s first year, the Republican Congress added .3 percent to the program. In 2002 and 2003, cuts totaled 5.6 and .6 percent, respectively, over the previous year’s funding levels. From the last year of Clinton’s administration to the current Bush funding level, appropriations for Superfund have declined by 5.9 percent.

But even that number is deceptive. Beginning with 2001 appropriations, Congress spun off two programs whose budget lumped in with the overall Superfund appropriations and funded them separately. Add that money into the mix–for Brownfields cleanups and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR/NIEHS)–and funding for toxic-waste cleanup under Bush rises substantially. Indeed, appropriations last year totaled $1.59 billion–just a hair under Clinton’s average of $1.6 billion, and considerably more than his last years in office.

None of this, of course, should excuse serious toxic contamination by the government, corporations, and communities. But that same censure should also apply to politicians and partisans who seek to pollute the public debate on this serious issue in an election year.

Sam Dealey is a writer in Washington, D.C.