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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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The Bush Administration is making some fundamental changes to the hazardous waste cleanup program known as Superfund. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood speaks with Democratic Senator Robert Toricelli of New Jersey about the changes, and his call to renew the Superfund tax on corporations.


CURWOOD: The White House also announced that it does not favor the renewal of a tax that will make industries pay for the cleanup of abandoned sites where there is not an identified responsible party. Instead, the money would come from the general treasury or taxpayers pockets.

Senator Robert Toricelli is a Democrat from New Jersey. His state harbors the most Superfund sites in the country and he's been pushing to reinstate the Superfund industry tax. He joins me now. Senator, welcome.

TORICELLI: Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: We invited the White House to appear on the program. They declined. But they argue that one of the main criticisms of the Superfund tax was that 70 percent of Superfund cleanup is already paid for by identified responsible parties, and that the tax forces corporations to pay additionally for sites that they aren't responsible for, and that, really, it's not truly a ‘polluter pays’ tax. Why should an innocent corporation pay for this cleanup?

TORICELLI: Well, the sites have to be cleaned. And there are several ways to do this. Where the Environmental Protection Agency can identify the responsible party, then appropriately, that party pays for the cleanup. In those cases where no one can be found, that is left to the taxpayers.

Well, there're two sets of taxpayers. There are American families who pay their income taxes that never profited from the production of these materials, bear no responsibility for these materials, only have the health consequences of these materials. Or, there are corporations themselves.

Now, we may not be able to find the individual corporation responsible. But I think it is fair to have a very small tax on all corporate activity that is, in some way, related to the chemical or petrochemical industry, rather than asking middle-income families to pay this out of the their income taxes.

CURWOOD: The Bush administration is cutting the number of Superfund sites that they're going to cleanup, what, by half Senator? Now, the argument they advance is that, look, in the past, the Superfund tax was used to cleanup rather simple sites. And, now that the program has reached a point of getting down to some of the more difficult places, it needs to deal with bigger and more complicated sites that take more time and money, and that the number of sites, the raw number of individual sites, really isn't a good measure here. How fair is that argument?

TORICELLI: Actually, I think that argument has some merit, that there are larger sites. The easier ones have been done. And I don't want to be unfair to the administration. I think they make a good point. It does, however, have a regional overlay that causes some difficulty, in that the more complicated and larger sites tend to be in the west and very rural areas. The smaller sites, that could be dealt with more easily, tend to be in very populated areas.

So, for example, the delays that we're looking at in coming years, New Jersey has 59 sites that would be delayed under this administration strategy. New York has 40. Pennsylvania, 31. Illinois, 17. You can see where the concentration would be, of these sites that they're moving away from. And as the most densely populated state in the nation, not only do we have the most Superfund sites, but we have more people living in direct proximity to those sites. It's a dangerous combination that should enter into their prioritizing.

CURWOOD: How do politics enter into this? New Jersey takes the biggest hit under the administration's plans to scale back Superfund, as you say. What do you think is the calculus here?

TORICELLI: I don't want to be cynical about it. But the reformulating to deal with the larger, so-called more complicated sites in the west, obviously also overlays nicely with the electoral map of the United States in presidential politics. And I certainly don't blame the Bush administration for looking after their own electoral constituency most directly. But I'm sure they can understand my responsibility to make sure the people of New Jersey are protected. And I'm not going to see these resources either dwindle or, just as importantly, what resources remain, go to other places in the country that are less populated, and away from New Jersey. We simply serve differently masters if that's the calculation.

CURWOOD: What are the two or three examples in New Jersey that come to mind?

TORICELLI: Almost every county in my state has an example of this. We, of course, have a very large petrochemical industry. Standard Oil was created in New Jersey. In the county where I live, in Bergen County, we actually have what are some radioactive locations, some of these going back to the war. A small community in Maywood, New Jersey, in the First World War, they manufactured lanterns for trench warfare. Well the radium that was used in those lanterns remained in the ground. And here we are 90 years later, it all needs to be removed. The company is hard to locate. It's very difficult to find legal responsibility. But, the people who live in those houses want to know that their front yards do not have radioactive materials in them. I could cite an example like that in 50 communities all around New Jersey.

CURWOOD: What's the future of the cleanup of Superfund sites?

TORICELLI: What is curious about opposition to my efforts to continue the Superfund is that this is, perhaps, the most remarkably successful environmental program in history. We took a nation that was littered with chemical and petrochemical pollution, inexplicable health problems in surrounding communities, built a multi-billion dollar fund, largely paid for by the people most directly involved in producing these materials, with little burden on the American taxpayers. We created companies, and governmental capabilities, to clean scores of these sites. We did it. We did it well. We should be proud of it. Now we need to get it finished and we're allowing it to expire. It doesn't make any sense. This is an American success story.

CURWOOD: United States Senator Robert Toricelli is a Democrat from New Jersey. Thanks so much for taking this time with us today.

TORICELLI: Thank you for having me.

[MUSIC: Steve Roden, “Saint Francis’ Vision of the Musicial Angel,” IN BETWEEN NOISE (Inverted Tree Projects – 1993)]



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