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[Poly Bridge]Solving pollution from solvents requires solvent Superfund | Editorial

2021-10-07

  Shhh! Don’t tell the Republicans, but there’s a tax increase in the bipartisan federal infrastructure legislation that some in their party have endorsed.

  The “deal” reinstates the tax, or fee, that feedstock chemical producers used to pay that ensure that “orphaned” Superfund contaminated sites will be cleaned up. The GOPers who signed off on the package must be OK with that, and that’s a good thing.

  Actually, it’s a slap in the face to the father of the Superfund legislation, former congressman and New Jersey governor Jim Florio, and his home state with its toxic-waste disposal legacy, that the national Superfund account is basically empty. According to public radio’s “Marketplace” program and website, the feds stopped collecting the fees when they expired in 1995. Congress and presidents of both parties never found enough will to reinstate them.

  Until now — as long as this excise tax remains in Infrastructure Bill Part 1, or whatever President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are calling the compromise these days.

  If proponents are worried that the excise tax mechanism will be exorcised from the final bill when (or if) it gets voted on, it may not be the Republicans they need to worry about. You didn’t think the chemical company lobby — sorry, the “chemistry” company lobby — is ready to see the tax return without a fight, did you?

  The American Chemistry Council is out there with its counter-argument, a dubious one it hopes will pull the heart strings of tree-huggers. Ross Eisenberg, vice president of public affairs for the council, states that any tax added to the cost of a finished product or a components will push up the final price a customer pays. While that’s indisputable under capitalism, he highlights those products needed for — you guessed it — traditional and transitional infrastructure projects.

  “All of these products on this list go into batteries for electric vehicles and infrastructure components, whether it’s wood or PVC or steel,” Eisenberg told “Marketplace.”

  True, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that the biggest bang-for-the-buck threat to repairing or rebuilding the most roads, bridges and sewer plants, or building the most electric vehicles, comes from a fractional tax on some raw materials. No, that honor goes to greedy speculators who take advantage of spot shortages, to profiteering manufacturers who use any excuse to boost a wholesale price more than necessary, to labor unions with insatiable demands, and to state and local governments whose regulations veer past the protective into the absurd.

  Although the rates varied by material, the original 1980s Superfund law collected about $5 per ton on many petrochemicals. That’s all. But it was enough to fund the bulk of expensive cleanups at places such as the infamous Lipari Landfill in Mantua Township, home to such a varied toxic brew that it would have been impossible to make all of the commercial dumpers pay the full cost. The site’s owners were virtually penniless by the time the pollution was discovered years later.

  The law was designed so that the Environmental Protection Agency would pursue responsible parties for remediation expenses, but that isn’t always possible. Certain Washington administrations probably didn’t try too hard. The trust fund was a guarantee of sorts that removal of dangerous pollution would not be delayed interminably.

  It’s not as if no cleanups are occurring. State funding and other federal appropriations have provided some money, and as the chemistry council notes, many modern-day chemical waste producers accept environmental responsibility.

  Nonetheless, South Jersey’s water supply now faces threats from a class of previously undetected chemicals, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their newer replacement variants. It would be good to have a robust fund for “orphaned” sites around again. We’re already seeing “It Wasn’t Me” responses from some of the accused polluters. Affected residents shouldn’t be forced listen to lyrics from that old Shaggy song forever.

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