Byline: Peter VanDoren and Michael Gough, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The Senate is about to vote on the reinstatement of taxes on oil and chemical companies to pay for the cleanup of certain toxic waste sites. Who could be against a program that taxes polluters and cleans up toxic waste? We are, and we expect anyone who looks at the program's results to agree.
Congress enacted Superfund (more formally, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Recovery Act, CERCLA) in 1980 during the public hysteria about health effects at Love Canal. The law authorized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up hazardous sites and to bill companies legally associated with the sites for the costs. The law also established a tax on chemicals and petroleum producers to pay for cleanups when no such companies could be identified or had ceased to exist. The taxing provisions expired at the end of 1995, and the Superfund trust fund will be insolvent by the end of fiscal 2003.
Environmentalists, supported by many non-activists, have made the reinstatement of the taxes an important priority. They argue it is economically correct to make "polluters pay" and that Superfund cleanups have served important public health goals such as cancer prevention at reasonable cost.
Superfund supporters claim that making "polluters" pay promotes economic efficiency. Such reasoning has no economic basis because economic efficiency is about the present and the future, not about the past. Indeed, to the extent chemical and petroleum companies fear random unpredictable retroactive taxes are likely to be placed on them in the future by Congress, Superfund reduces investment in those sectors below efficient levels.
The $20 billion expended under Superfund between 1981 and 1992 has had no discernible effect on human health and may have had no effect at all. In their 1999 book, "Calculating Risks," James T. Hamilton and W. Kip Viscusi examined disease prevention and costs at 150 sites for which the EPA made remediation decisions in 1991-92.
Using EPA's methods for estimating risks, Messrs. Hamilton and Viscusi calculated that 731 cases of cancer could be expected over the next 30 years from those sites in the absence of any cleanup. …