Acritical look at the Superfund program may be coming as Democrats take control of Congress. New leaders of key committees contend the program’s cleanup pace has slowed and funding is inadequate. The construction industry hopes the scrutiny will lead to more federal aid, but that may have to wait at least until the fiscal 2008 appropriations.

As the Environmental Protection Agency released Superfund’s fiscal 2006 results last month, Assistant Administrator Susan Bodine said, “EPA continues to make progress in protecting human health and the environment by cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated sites.”

But new Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) indicates she isn’t satisfied. She notes that construction has been completed at about 40 sites annually over the past several years, down from more than 80 a year in the late 1990s. Adds House Energy and Commerce Chaiman John Dingell (D-Mich.): “Superfund is short of money and desperately so.” EPA says sites where construction is under way or ready to start often are bigger, more complex and costly than sites that are finished.

Federal Superfund aid has been flat for about a decade, hovering around $1.2 billion. Moreover, says Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club environmental quality program, “If you take inflation into account, over time there has been a pretty significant decrease in the funding that’s available.” The Government Accountability Office has said Superfund appropriations fell 35% in constant dollars from 1993 to 2004. 

The program lost its dedicated revenue source in 1995, when a tax on oil, chemical and other companies expired.  Last year, Boxer reintroduced a bill to reinstate the fees, but it went nowhere.

"Democratic leaders seem to recognize the fact that the program is underfunded, which suggests that Superfund will be a higher funding priority in 2007," says Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies vice president for government affairs. Results may not come that soon. New Democratic appropriations chairmen have said there will be only "limited adjustments" in fiscal 2007 spending from the GOP budget.