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CHICAGO — The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and the Environmental Protection Network (EPN) hosted a webinar panel on Friday that celebrated the reinstatement of the “polluter pays'' tax that will help fund the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Superfund” toxic waste cleanup program over the next decade.
The panel featured United States Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who fought hard for reinstating the polluter pays tax, as well as community members, activists and experts. The speakers highlighted the challenges lack of funding had posed in the past, the dangers caused by Superfund sites and the changes that need to be made to the program to make it more effective at protecting people from toxic waste exposure.
“Companies should pay to clean up their own toxic waste,” said Rep. Blumenauer. “When we deal with these Superfund sites that go back decades and oftentimes there isn’t a party to hold responsible, not having the Superfund resources available drags out the cleanup.”
One in six Americans lives within three miles of a toxic waste site approved or proposed for cleanup under the federal government’s Superfund program.
“Millions of Americans live near toxic waste sites,” said Jillian Gordner, U.S. PIRG’s Make Polluters Pay Campaign Associate. “Toxic waste has no place in our communities, and the longer it’s there, the more environmental and health risks we face. Unsurprisingly, when the Superfund program was fully funded, it did a much better job cleaning up toxic waste sites. With some of that funding coming back, the Superfund program will better serve its purpose to protect people and communities from toxic waste.”
The panelists at the webinar discussed issues using their knowledge from backgrounds in government, community organizing and advocacy. The speakers included:
Earl Blumenauer, U.S. Representative of Oregon
Jim Woolford, EPN member & former Director of the Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation (OSRTI) at EPA.
Marcus Griswold, Principal, Calm Waters Group
Cassie Cohen, Executive Director, Portland Harbor Community Coalition
Mamela Mamelang, Communications Director Portland Harbor Community Coalition
Ed Lorenz, activist with the Pine River Community Advisory Group, Professor at Alma College
Moderator: Jillian Gordner, Make Polluters Pay Campaign Associate at U.S. PIRG
“When you don’t have enough funds, [negotiations with responsible parties] continue and continue on sometimes for years with nothing really happening at the site,” said Jim Woolford, EPN member and former director of the Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation (OSRTI) at EPA. “The agency now has the leverage it needs to say to a responsible party you either sign the order or we start doing the work.”
The chemicals found at Superfund toxic waste sites, such as arsenic, benzene, dioxin and lead, are some of the most dangerous in the world. Exposure to chemicals at Superfund toxic waste sites is linked to an increased risk of cancer, respiratory and heart disease, stunted development in children and many other medical problems.
"The Superfund process can drag on for decades, only to have the final cleanup take decades more,” said Marcus Griswold, founder of Calm Waters Group. “To accelerate cleanup that is inclusive of community needs, we need to pull together a network of communities living near Superfund sites to share best practices, advocate for effective solutions and address the collision of climate change and exposure to contamination in these communities.”
As of December, 2021, a total of 1,322 Superfund sites were identified for clean up under the EPA’s National Priorities List. Over the next 10 years, the reinstated polluter-pays tax on chemical production could provide $14.4 billion in funding to clean up dangerous toxic waste sites.
“Communities impacted by Superfund need more direct, flexible, long-term funding resources through EPA,” said Cassie Cohen, executive director for Portland Harbor Community Coalition. “EPA needs more funding to hire climate experts, environmental justice experts, jobs-training experts, all to intersect with the Superfund programs.”
“We’re really pleased with the Superfund tax being renewed. We’re really pleased with all the money we get for Superfund cleanups. But, there’s this human health component that’s largely ignored,” said Ed Lorenz, vice-chair of the Pine River Community Advisory Group and a Professor at Alma College. We really need funding from the EPA to deal with the human health consequences.”
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