Making Polluters Pay: How Public Education and Advocacy Revived the Polluter Pays Principle


After 26 years of citizens footing the bill for the damage caused by polluters, Congress passed a ‘polluter pays’ tax on the production of hazardous chemicals, which will hold the polluting industry responsible for the cost of cleaning up waste sites. most dangerous toxicants in the country. An additional polluter-pays tax on oil production is also in the House of Representatives as part of the Build Back Better Act, which is expected to be passed in the coming weeks.

These polluter pays taxes were originally intended to fund the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, which manages toxic waste sites that require most serious long-term cleaning. Toxic chemicals at these sites include arsenic, lead, dioxin, mercury, benzene, asbestos, and other dangerous chemicals that can increase the risk of Cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects and other serious illnesses. A recent study found that living near one of these sites was correlated with a shorter lifespan. Since these taxes lapsed in 1995, the government has lost billions in revenue from the polluting industries that create the contaminants in these toxic waste sites and has had to rely more and more on taxpayer revenues to cover cleaning costs.

However, taxpayer dollars could not cover the shortfall. Without polluter pays money, cleaning up toxic waste sites of the Superfund slowed down to a crawl over the past 20 years, leaving Americans at risk for serious illness for longer. Of the more than 1,300 Superfund sites currently on the national priority list, 78.5% have been there for more than 20 years. And the backlog of sites awaiting funding grew to 38 last year, the highest number of unfunded cleanups on record.

The cruel lack of funding and the slow pace of cleanup did not go unnoticed; since taxes disappeared, there has been support to restore them. Almost every year, members of Congress in the House and Senate – including Representative Frank Pallone, Representative Earl Blumenauer, Senator Cory Booker and former Senator Frank Lautenberg – have all introduced bills to restore taxes to the polluter pays, and builds bipartite coalitions in support of their bills. Outside the halls of Congress, many national, state and local environmental groups have called for the reinstatement of taxes.

Who is against these taxes? Chemical and petroleum industries that don’t want to pay for cleaning up the damage done by their industries.

So, 40 years after working to push through the original Superfund legislation, Environment America has partnered with our network of PIRG organizations across the country to launch our Make Polluters Pay campaign, empowering citizens across the country. to convince Congress to reinstate the polluter pays. taxes.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration named the reinstatement of polluter pays taxes as one of its primary environmental goals. With the support of the administration, some key champions in the legislature, and our work to raise this issue in public consciousness, we were successful in pushing the polluter pays tax on the production of dangerous chemicals through the Senate into the bipartisan infrastructure bill, with a vote of 69-30. It’s a huge victory, because it shows us that this common sense idea transcends party lines. Today the United States House of Representatives affirmed this when it also adopted this policy.

Here is what we did:

  • We have published reports on threat of Superfund toxic waste sites and the lack of funding which slowed down the cleanup and put more people at risk, as well as threat that hurricanes introduce when they collide with toxic waste sites

  • We held a online seminar with expert panelists to educate people on the issue

  • We made sure the public heard about the issue by posting opinion articles in major publications and in discussions with the media – of podcast hosts To environmental journalists

  • We’ve collected thousands of petition signatures to show members of Congress that their constituents want them to act

  • We have worked with concerned coalition partners and legislative champions and made sure our elected officials know their constituents are supporting them on this issue.

The reinstatement today of a polluter pays tax on the dangerous chemical industry will mean fewer Superfund toxic waste sites threatening our drinking water, our soil and our air. It will mean reducing the risk of cancer and other serious illnesses for millions of Americans and giving them safer communities to live in.

While today marks an important step towards our goal of ensuring that polluters, not ordinary Americans, are held accountable for the cost of cleaning up their pollution, this is not the end of our campaign. When Congress passes the Build Back Better Act, it still has the option of reinstating the other polluter pays tax to fund the cleanup of toxic waste Superfund sites – a tax on the oil industry. We will continue to work to make sure our lawmakers do the right thing and make polluters pay.

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