(CNSNews.com) - Amid controversy over the handling of the federal Superfund program, the Bush administration said it will seek an additional $150 million for hazardous waste site cleanup in the Fiscal Year 2004 budget.
The proposed increase, announced Friday, would bring total Superfund spending for the year to $1.39 billion.
"Over the past two decades, Superfund has made tremendous strides by cleaning up more than 800 hazardous waste sites and converting some into areas of productive use for the community," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, whose department manages the Superfund program.
Whitman justified the extra spending, pointing to the higher cost and complexity of Superfund sites that are now reaching the construction phase.
"Working together we can ensure the Superfund program is strengthened and that its future course is charted in the direction of healthy and thriving communities for this generation and those to come," Whitman said.
The proposed funding increase follows a failed Democratic effort to add $100 million to the program for fiscal year 2003. The Senate on Jan. 24 voted 53-45 against the amendment offered by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
The administration's decision has the Sierra Club's Jessica Frohman perplexed.
"It's kind of shocking news," said Frohman, not only because Republicans shot down the Lautenberg amendment but because President Bush took a stand against Superfund by openly opposing reauthorization of the program's prior funding scheme. Petroleum and chemical companies, principally, had been required to pay into the program's trust fund annually until 1995, when congressional Republicans allowed that plan to lapse.
"So it's interesting that [Bush] is now suddenly ... giving money to Superfund," Frohman observed. She estimates that $150 million would help cover the clean-up of 12 Superfund sites.
"What is not so pleasing about this is once this $150 million is out of the trust fund and the trust fund is in a balance of zero, all of the money that will be used to pay for the clean-ups will then be coming directly from taxpayers," said Frohman.
But Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, believes the White House is just trying to inoculate itself on environmental issues\b to prevent distraction from its priorities -- tax cuts, the war on terrorism and Iraq.
"It's a symbolically useful activity for the president," said Taylor. "I think that he's trying to avoid any unnecessary fights with the environmental lobby." Taylor said the White House knows that fights over environmental issues harm the administration.
On its merits, however, Taylor believes the Superfund program doesn't deserve a cash infusion courtesy of the taxpayers.
The program's critics have noted that it spent $20 billion dollars between 1981 and 1992 without producing measurable benefit to human health.
Superfund's cash balance peaked in 1996, with $3.8 billion in the trust fund, but that total dropped to $860 million by 2001.
"This is an egregious program that has been hammered by every serious academic that's examined it," said Taylor. "Yet the issue of hazardous waste is so emotional with a great number of people, that any attempt to modify or modernize or reform the program is an invitation to political hysteria."
See Earlier Story:
Liberals: Bush Policies 'An Effort To Protect Polluters' (19 April 2002)
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