Funding a growing problem
Cleanups are slowing while the number of Superfund sites is growing.
“The EPA folks are trying to spread not enough resources,” said John Stephenson, director of Natural Resources and Environment for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “This is not an effective way to clean up sites.”
For the last several years, more Superfund sites have been added to the list than removed. Last year, 23 sites were added, while eight were removed.
Congress has generally given the Environmental Protection Agency less money for Superfund each year since 1998, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.
The EPA, which got $1.3 billion for Superfund in 2009, tries to identify those responsible for the pollution at each site and force them to pay for cleanup. A trust fund pays to clean sites when those companies can't be found.
The trust fund peaked at $5 billion in 1997, but dwindled to $137 million in 2009, according to the accountability office report.
The decline followed the 1995 expiration of a tax on energy companies that largely funded the Superfund trust fund.
Since 2001, taxpayer dollars have been the largest source of money for the trust fund, according to the report.
In the past five years, half the sites where cleanup began were primarily government-funded, according to an EPA statement.
The agency and Obama administration are pushing for the tax on the energy companies to be reinstated. The EPA said the tax would raise $18.9 billion by 2020.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said the tax targets the energy industry as a whole, not just those companies responsible for pollution.
“The polluters are paying,” said Inhofe's spokesman Matt Dempsey. “In every instance where a polluter is responsible and liable, they are paying for the Superfund site.”
Oklahoma has three active sites without responsible parties paying for cleanups, said EPA spokesman Dave Bary.
States pay 10 percent of cleanup costs not covered by a responsible company, while the federal government pays 90 percent, said Amy Brittain, environmental programs manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.
There is no regular source of funding for Oklahoma's share, department spokeswoman Skylar McElhaney said.
“It isn't a concern currently, but it could be in the future,” McElhaney said.
Stephenson said Superfund cleanups would be more cost-effective if funding were based on the danger.
“Put the money where the greatest risk is,” Stephenson said.
Scott of the Sierra Club said paying for Superfund is going to be an issue for years.
“In reality, it's a social justice issue because most of these Superfund sites are in low- to median-income areas,” he said. “No one wants to put the money into them, and the culprits are nowhere to be found.”
Ongoing coverage: Superfund sites
Ongoing coverage: Tar Creek