Monday, October 13, 2014

Augsburg Feature: Superfund Sites

Hey Paddlers!  My name is Charles and I am senior Environmental Studies student.  I was on the canoe trip with Emily and a couple of the other students who have been blogging. I was inspired by the latest blog post concerning recent excursion into DePue to look into some of the challenges with Superfund sites and ways around those challenges.

 The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act  (CERCLA) also known as the Superfund, was a $1.8 billion fund paid into by taxes on petrochemical companies, an example of what is called the “polluter pays” principle.  Areas are cleaned to achieve a “Greenfield” or pollution-free status. However, the taxes were not renewed after 1996, and no other tax pays into the fund. 

Until recently, CERCLA only provided for landowners to clean up the hazardous sites themselves, or to pay the EPA to cleanup.  The Obama Administration’s Re-Powering America’s Land initiative allows the repurposing of Superfund sites into locations for wind or solar energy.  This is essential since many of the sites are beyond a level of reasonable repair for human habitat.  The Reilly Tar & Chemical Corp site in Indianapolis is the first such site on which the initiative is being used.  Of the 120 acres of hazardous land on the site, 48 are being repurposed as a solar “farm” called the Maywood Solar Farm.

This past year, however, the Supreme Court ruled that CERCLA is still subject to State filing deadlines.  After ten North Carolinian landowners discovered high levels of carcinogens in the groundwater, they sued the electronics manufacturer that they had bought the land from in 1987. However, there is a filing deadline in North Carolina of ten years, and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of state’s rights. Oftentimes we don’t discover the truly deleterious effects of pollutants until well over a decade after their primary use, so the court case was a blow not only to environmental protection but also logic itself.

To put this into perspective, it can be interesting to see how other parts of the world handle these sorts of situations.  Throughout the European Union, there is a broad group of policies referred to as “Environmental liability regimes.”  In their weakest forms, they are similar to CERCLA, only weaker for the most part, except in the countries of Italy, Latvia, and Lithuania.  The ELR agreed to by most of the EU does not fine polluters retroactively, meaning that decades of pollution caused before the bills won’t be cleaned up.  Also, individuals and NGOs are not allowed to sue polluters directly. Sites are given priority through the ELR not by their pollution level, but by the future planned use.  Lastly—this is the largest divergence from Superfund—payment does not come from the taxes of one industry in particular.

Unfortunately, in the U.S. the Superfund has run out of serious funds before the country ran out of areas to clean up--like the site in DePue.  However, we can make reforms to the program to strengthen it.  Similarly to the EU, the United States should use a broader tax base to create the CERCLA trust fund.  If the land use is only suited for industrial use, the Re--Powering America’s Land initiative can create green jobs and help to pay for cleanup in residential areas. 

The residents of polluted land deserve the right to sue polluters, regardless of how long ago the pollution happened.  This is the only way I can see the residents of DePue getting the justice they deserve from Exxon and CBS. 

Well, paddlers, I’m sure that you’ve become more acutely aware of the both the subtle and overt pollution that exists around us.  Don’t lose hope! The planet has an amazing ability to renew itself.  This was one of the things that struck me the most on my own trip.  Here’s to a cleaner tomorrow!

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