PHOENIX • Over the past 20 years, American taxpayers have spent more than $21 billion in cleanup and oversight costs for properties polluted by dangerous wastes, known as Superfund sites, while hundreds of companies responsible for contaminating water paid little to nothing, an analysis of congressional budget data shows.
The Superfund program, established in 1980, was meant to hold industries and businesses — such as landfill operators, chemical companies and manufacturers — accountable for polluting communities across the country. For years, petroleum, chemical and corporate taxes imposed by Congress funded the vast majority of the Superfund program, including expensive cleanups.
But since the Superfund taxes expired in 1995, the burden of paying the costs shifted dramatically. Today, most of the program's funding comes through taxpayer dollars, according to data reviewed by News21, a national investigative reporting project.
When companies that polluted groundwater sources cannot be identified, no longer exist or can't afford cleanup costs, the Environmental Protection Agency often assumes responsibility.
"It would be good to get the Superfund tax back because the industries were able to absorb that a whole lot more easily than the individual … or a taxpayer in a local community," said Christine Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator.
News21 spent months examining more than 1,700 Superfund sites and found companies dealing with dumping, mining, dry-cleaning and wood treatment are among the nation's biggest polluters. Lead, arsenic and mercury are the most common contaminants found at Superfund sites.
At the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, the Energy Department produced enriched uranium for nuclear bombs during World War II and the Cold War. Mercury contamination has prevented residents from fishing and swimming along a nearby creek, and residents near the Superfund site remain concerned about the safety of their drinking water.
"If I'm thirsty enough, I'll drink," said Dynasti Kirk, an Oak Ridge resident. "But I don't trust it." The EPA has linked hazardous substances to a variety of human health problems, including birth defects, cancer, nervous system damage and infertility. Using census data, a 2015 EPA report found 53 million people live within three miles of a Superfund remedial site.
Congressional funding has gradually decreased, making it more difficult to oversee and enforce the program. From 1999 through 2013, appropriations to the EPA's Superfund program were cut from about $2 billion to about $1.1 billion, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report.
At most Superfund sites, the EPA is able to identify potentially responsible parties. Even so, those companies are under no legal obligation to maintain or disclose their cleanup costs, according to the GAO. Companies generally keep cost information confidential.
(West Lake Landfill, which is contaminated with Manhattan Project-era nuclear waste, is among high-profile Superfund sites in the St. Louis area. There, the EPA officials has identified “potentially responsible parties” that include landfill operator, Republic Services; the U.S. Department of Energy; the energy corporation, Exelon, and its former subsidiary, Cotter Corp., a uranium mining company.)
Less money has meant slower cleanups. It takes years for a typical Superfund site to be removed from the National Priorities List (NPL). More than half of the original 406 sites added onto the NPL in 1983 remain on the list today.
Whitman, who served under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003, pushed for a reauthorization of the Superfund taxes so the agency could pay for more enforcement and cleanup. "We kept pointing out this money is running out; we need to do this," Whitman said.
The Bush administration determined it was not a political battle worth fighting, she added. "It was something for which Congress had no appetite," she said. "They just were not willing to consider anything that had the word 'tax' in it."
Democrats failed to renew the taxes when they controlled the House and Senate at the start of Obama's first term.
Mathy Stanislaus, who oversaw the Superfund program from 2009 through 2017 under President Barack Obama, said cleanups were "competing with the multitude of other activities and obligations of the federal government."
"There was a reason why the Superfund tax was put in place," he said. "Where you don't have a liable responsible party, let's at least have the business activities that are most associated with contaminants found at Superfund sites pay for those sites versus the general taxpayer."
In March, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., introduced the Superfund Polluter Pays Act, similar to other bills introduced over the past decade. All have failed.
"If everyone in Washington lived within a mile of a Superfund site, I have a feeling there'd be a lot more urgency," Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said. "But because it's not affecting our families or our children, it doesn't seem that we have that kind of urgency. That's just not right, and I'm very angry about it."
New Jersey is home to 114 active Superfund sites, the most in the country.
"These aren't Republican and Democrat issues," Whitman said. "These are people issues. These are about human health and the environment. Mother Nature could care less whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or which state you live in."
President Donald Trump's budget proposed a 30 percent cut to the Superfund program, including investigations, enforcement and cleanup.
"Every federal agency is having to tighten its belt right now," said Marianne Horinko, also an EPA administrator under Bush. "But I think EPA's core mission and its values are too important to the American people to have drastic cuts. I think, eventually, the EPA, and Superfund in particular, will continue to assume an important role."
This report is part of the project Troubled Water, produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.