Discover more from The Brockovich Report
The United States of Toxic Waste
And Why The EPA Is Not Equipped To Handle Our Biggest Pollution Problems
We live in toxic times.
We live among petroleum refineries, coal-fired power plants, chemical manufacturers, fertilizer plants, and wastewater treatment plants.
Recent events in East Palestine, Ohio, has stirred something up in this country.
People are asking all kinds of good questions…
How could this happen?
What companies make those chemicals?
Is there a train track near me where something similar could happen?
What protections do we have in place to prevent this kind of disaster?
Is it safe? Is it not safe?
The truth is that the United States is a dangerous place, averaging about one chemical accident every two days, according to a recent analysis by The Guardian.
That number is based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by nonprofit groups that track chemical accidents in the U.S.
These accidental releases can include anything from train derailments to truck crashes, pipeline ruptures to industrial plant leaks and spills.
Almost 12,000 facilities across the nation have on site “extremely hazardous chemicals in amounts that could harm people, the environment, or property if accidentally released,” according to a 2022 Government Accountability Office report.
It’s a mess out there! These chemicals are making their way into our bodies, causing health problems for many Americans.
I know because my inbox is flooded each day with people asking for help in their town. The American landscape has been littered with toxins, and the dream is to find a place far enough away from where the pollution can harm you.
A Crumbling EPA
For years, I’ve watched environmental tragedies unfold under both Republican and Democratic leadership. It’s not really about who is president; it’s about our priorities as a nation.
Both funding and staffing matter, especially when it comes to the agency tasked with with protecting the water we drink and the air we breathe.
The EPA is by no means a perfect agency, but the situation did become much worse when former President Trump vowed to reduce the EPA’s finances to “little tidbits,” proposing a budget not seen since 1976.
He called for a 25 percent reduction in staff and made plans to eliminate significant regional water quality programs such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Chesapeake Bay program, which work to help keep our local waterways safe.
He also proposed significant cuts to the Superfund program, which works to clean up hazardous waste sites and to slash funding for federal enforcement of environmental protection violations.
Cutting staff and budgets means less inspectors monitoring the laws we have on the books, less resources to study the impact of toxins, and more companies contravening environmental regulations.
But don’t worry, this discourse is not an attack on our former president.
When you look at the numbers, you can see the EPA’s budget and number of employees has been slowly shrinking for decades, according to a report from The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), an organization made up of academics and non-profit employees that promotes open and accessible government data and information.
In 1999 the EPA’s staff size peaked with more than 18,000 employees.
Staff numbers have dwindled since then for a variety reasons including retirements, pushing out good people, and many employees feeling too fed up to stay and watch the agency crumble.
Consider the fact that studying one toxic chemical can cost an estimated $1 million, and it becomes easy to see why the agency is operating at a snail’s pace.
The agency is stretched thin. How can it possibly do its job?
The staffing crisis has become so bad that thousands of EPA employees held a rally in D.C. outside the agency’s headquarters in February to bring attention to the issue.
Leaders of AFGE Council 238, a union representing roughly half of the EPA’s current workforce, said in a memo that non competitive salaries and a lack of career development opportunities are fueling attrition and overburdening staff, according to a Grist article.
The AFGE has said that the agency needs about 20,000 full-time staff, a 40 percent increase, to carry out all the new programs the agency has been tasked with, including dealing with challenges related to climate change.
Getting Back to Our Pollution Problem
Many of these toxic spills turn into Superfund sites.
The EPA’s Superfund program began in 1980 to help clean-up some the country’s worst hazardous waste sites and to respond to local and national environmental emergencies.
But since then, how many areas have been thoroughly cleaned? How many people are even aware they exist?
A Superfund site is any land that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.
Most of these sites are “discovered” when the presence of hazardous waste is made known to EPA—meaning communities usually find them first because people get sick.
These sites get placed on the National Priorities List (NPL). We have almost 33,000 Superfund sites and about 1,300 of these sites are on the NPL. They are full of asbestos, lead, radiation, and other hazardous materials, and they are not getting cleaned up fast enough.
The EPA announced in February more than $1 billion in funding to to start new cleanup projects at 22 Superfund sites and expedite over 100 other ongoing cleanups across the country.
While we should celebrate that progress, it still leaves tens thousands of sites full of legacy contamination.
About 73 million Americans live within 3 miles of a Superfund site, including 23 percent of all U.S. children under the age of 5.
You can search for your community here.
Again, we have to follow the money.
Up until 1995, the Superfund program was funded mostly from taxes on crude oil, imported petroleum products, hazardous chemicals, imported substances that use hazardous chemicals as a feedstock, and on corporate modified alternative minimum taxable income.
Those taxes expired in 1996, and for more than 25 years our tax dollars largely paid for clean-up at Superfund sites.
Thankfully, two excise taxes on chemicals and imported hazardous substances were reinstated in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed on July 1, 2022. A third excise tax on crude oil and petroleum products was reinstated in the Inflation Reduction Act effective January 1, 2023.
The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates these excise taxes combined would increase revenues by over $52 billion over a 10-year period. That’s certainly a start.
But along with our toxic backlog, we have new problems popping all the time, including the recent chemical fire in East Palestine.
Becoming Better Advocates
The power of the lobbying industry to influence our political system is enormous. Companies, labor unions, and others spend billions each year to lobby Congress and federal agencies.
In 1998, lobbying spending totaled $1.45 billion; today, it’s more than $4 billion.
Imagine if citizens and groups that represented our public health had those kinds of budgets and sway.
Only big industry has the kind of money and power to put a professional in every single meeting, in every Congressional office, weigh in at every comment period, and be part of every discussion session, so that their voices are heard. It’s hard for any politician to resist that kind of power.
But the times are a changin’. We can become our own lobbyists.
The power of the people lies in coming together so that our voices and concerns are at the table, especially when decisions about our future are being made.
More people are willing to pick up their heads and say, “Maybe we need to stop supporting those who are telling me everything is okay.”
I encourage everyone reading these words to get involved. Go to your city council meetings, run for office, or volunteer with a local environmental nonprofit. It doesn’t matter what you do, it just matters that you do something.
We can be the change we wish to see in the world!
East Palestine Updates
Want to know what happened at the Town Hall last Friday in East Palestine?
Watch this video made by our friends at Status Coup News where you can see parts of the town hall and interviews with water expert Bob Bowcock and Melissa Mays, an organizer and mom from Flint, Michigan.
The turnout was huge! And I’m grateful for everyone who came out to get more information.
And huge thanks to everyone I met in East Palestine. You are incredible!
Add your voice to the comment section below! What did you learn? What info are you willing to pass along to your friends and neighbors?