Bush budget may delay MT Superfund cleanups 

The cleanup of nine of Montana’s 13 Superfund sites could be delayed by the Bush administration’s budget proposals, according to an analysis by a local non-profit group.

The Bush administration told Congress at the end of February that it would not seek to reauthorize so-called “polluter pays” taxes in which corporate taxes from industries with records of polluting go toward cleaning up toxic sites. Together with the slowing pace of Superfund cleanups by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the lack of funding for the program, this puts Montana’s most polluted sites in jeopardy of not getting the proper attention, says the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG).

“In case after case in Montana it has been the Superfund that has enabled the EPA to initiate cleanup in order to protect water and watersheds and public health,” says David Ponder, executive director of MontPIRG. If the president’s proposals go through, he says, “they’ll have to start making tough decisions about which sites get cleaned up.”

Between 1996 and 2000, about 86 sites a year were cleaned up by the EPA, according to the MontPIRG study. This dropped to 47 cleanups in 2001, and this year the number is expected to be about 40. The slowing pace of cleanups goes along with a sharply decreasing budget. In 2001, $860 million were allotted for Superfund cleanups. In 2002 it was $427 million, and for 2003 the number is $28 million, according to the Bush budget for fiscal year 2003.

Until 1995, a federal law imposed taxes on polluting industries to pay for Superfund cleanups. In 1995, polluters paid 82 percent of cleanup costs. According to the MontPIRG study, in 2003 industry will pay about 46 percent. “If the Superfund tax isn’t reinstated now, the cost of cleanups will be borne by the taxpayers and the wage earners, instead of the actual polluters,” says Gayla Benefield, president of the Lincoln County Asbestos Victims Relief Organization.

Benefield’s group represents residents of Libby, where hundreds of people have died from asbestos poisoning linked to the W.R. Grace and Company vermiculite mine. The EPA has estimated Libby’s cleanup costs at more than $50 million. Libby’s future is precarious, Ponder says, because W.R. Grace is no longer a solvent company. Benefield fears that if the industrial taxes are not reauthorized, not enough money will be available for a thorough cleanup.

In opposing the “polluter pays” tax, the Bush administration has echoed the concerns of congressional Republicans who say it is unfair to tax businesses like chemical companies that may not be responsible for any toxic sites themselves. Republicans have also accused the Superfund program of wasting money on cycles of lawsuits over who is responsible for polluting a site.

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