It has been almost 40 years since the nation heard the cries for help from Love Canal, where a school in Niagara Falls, New York, was built on a toxic dump filled with 21,000 tons of chemical waste. Children were sick, parents were scared and families lost their homes.
I know, because my children, my family and my home were among them. After years of fighting, hundreds of families were relocated and clean-up efforts begun.
The Love Canal crisis created awareness of the health dangers from environmental pollutants, especially to pregnant women and young children. And it gave impetus to the Superfund program, begun in 1980, which allows communities to hold corporations responsible for cleaning up contamination.
But now a pending action by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt threatens to strip that power away.
The cornerstone of the Superfund program signed into law by President Jimmy Carter is the “polluter pays” principle. That worked well for years, including under presidents Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton, all of whom supported the program and the tax that funded it.
Then, in 1995, Congress allowed the tax to expire. By 2003, the entire financial burden of paying to clean up the worst orphan toxic sites fell to the taxpayers. As a result, the number of toxic sites cleaned up sharply declined.
Now along comes Pruitt, proclaiming that Superfund is his priority. As the “mother of Superfund,” as I am sometimes called, I should be thrilled. Instead, I’m terrified.
Pruitt created a Superfund task force, whose recommendations were released in late July. His proposal would let responsible parties agree to clean up a site to avoid the stigma of being listed on the National Priority List. That gives power to corporations and takes it away from communities harmed by the toxic sites.
Making matters worse is Pruitt’s support for a 34 percent cut to his agency’s funding, which reduce funding for Superfund sites by $330 million annually.
There are 1,300 sites on the Superfund list, many of which have languished for years, as dangerous chemicals continue to seep into the ground. Nearly 53 million people live within three miles of a Superfund site; 46 percent are people of color and 15 percent live below the poverty line.
Recently, a “People’s Task Force” on the future of the Superfund program released a series of recommendations for the Superfund program. The task force is comprised of representatives of 25 Superfund sites and 70 environmental organizations. It calls for greater transparency and accountability, including the restitution of the Polluters Pay Tax.
If Pruitt truly wants to protect people around Superfund sites, he should hold polluters, not taxpayers, responsible for cleanup costs. He should also continue the technical assistance grants that provide communities with the information they need to understand their cleanup options.
Pruitt must protect the power of communities to hold polluters responsible, because after 40 years, it is painfully clear that we can’t count on corporations to do the right thing.
Lois Marie Gibbs is the founder of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a project of the People’s Action Institute. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.