Press Box

Toxic Smear Job

The Times “Slashes” Bush with its bogus Superfund budget-cuts story.

The terrifying headline, “Bush Slashing Aid for E.P.A. Cleanup at 33 Toxic Sites,” which fronted the New York Times on Monday, July 1, was enough to make you zip your hazmat suit. Quoting a report by the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency, Times scribe Katharine Q. Seelye found that some of the nation’s “most seriously polluted” Superfund cleanup sites in 18 states would go wanting for dollars this year because of Bush administration stinginess. Seelye writes:

Among the sites that for now would receive less money—in some cases, none—are a manufacturing plant in Edison, N.J., where the herbicide Agent Orange was produced, several chemical plants in Florida and two old mines in Montana.

As the American media’s news-agenda dictator, the Times inspired dozens of pieces by newspapers, wire services, and broadcasters across the country. Many papers, such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Bergen County Record, localized their stories by mentioning Superfund site cutbacks in their backyards.

Although the Times story spewed Superfund hysteria, it never went as far as the Record, which reported (erroneously) that the administration planned “to reduce spending for the nation’s Superfund program.” That’s not the case. The “slashing” cuts of the Times headline, delineated in the seventh paragraph of the story, were merely the difference between what EPA regional offices had requested from the EPA’s Washington headquarters ($450 million) and what headquarters had deigned to allocate ($228 million) to clean up 33 specific sites in FY 2002. It’s as if you asked Santa for a BMW and accused him of dealing you a cutback when he only gave you a Honda.

In fact, spending on Superfund has remained steady in recent years, with $1.4 billion budgeted in FY 2000, $1.27 billion in 2001, $1.27 billion in FY 2002 (not counting homeland security add-ins), and a projected $1.3 billion for FY 2003, if the Bushies get their way. (Among other things, the Superfund budget covers legal enforcement, engineering, office overhead, and direct cleanup of sites.) Seelye notes the current budget in her piece but doesn’t put it in the context of previous years’ spending or the Bush administration’s 2003 intentions. Based on these numbers, Seelye could have just as easily written a story titled, “Bush Superfund Budget Grows Slightly.”

Neither the next day’s (July 2) Wall Street Journal or Washington Post bought the Times line. Both got a comment from the EPA, something Seelye didn’t do. Agency spokesperson Joe Martyak told both papers that the numbers in the inspector general’s report were only a “snapshot in time” and not accurate. Martyak added that some of the 33 Superfund sites didn’t need more money and that 11 would win more funds in a later quarter.

Why, then, all the horror show about the Superfund-slashing Bush? One can, in good conscience, criticize Bush as less aggressive than Clinton in his Superfund cleanup strategy, as National Journal did in its June 1 issue. Or one can argue that the program should be bumped up to $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion in this decade to complete the various projects, as Superfund maven Kathryn Probst at Resources for the Future holds.

But that’s not what’s driving this story. Hill Democrats want to reinstitute the “Superfund tax,” which ran from 1980 to 1995. The tax dunned chemical and oil companies, among other industries, for money to clean up “orphan” Superfund sites—sites whose owners have absconded or have gone bankrupt. The sites affected by Bush “cutbacks” are orphans and constitute 30 percent of all Superfund cleanups. (Culpable corporate parties, snared by EPA cops, pay for the remaining 70 percent of Superfund-designated sites.)

The Superfund tax trust fund, which ballooned to $3.8 billion in 1996, is now nearly empty, and that’s reignited the Hill debate about how to pay for the orphans’ hygiene. Since 1995, Republicans have resolutely opposed a new Superfund tax and have largely agreed with industry that general tax revenues should cover the orphans (or that the feds should defer the matter to the states). The Democrats, led by Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, want the tax back, and they have been campaigning in the press since the beginning of the year for its return. In April, Dingell and Pallone commissioned the EPA inspector general—who is not an EPA employee—to investigate which Superfund cleanups the Bush administration was postponing or scaling back on. When they got the report, they delivered it to Seelye, apparently giving her one of the media’s first peeks.

To her credit, Seelye acknowledges the provenance of the report, discloses who gave it to her, and describes her benefactors as “opposing the cuts.” But after doing so, she carries the Democrats’ water for them, essaying at great length about their desire for the Superfund tax. One of the piece’s subheads, “Superfund Is Drying Up,” should be its headline (but that’s been true for the last six years). And she echoes the enviros’ and Democrats’ point of view, accepting their dubious rhetoric that under the Superfund tax, “the polluter pays.” Actually, the Superfund tax conscripts many companies that have never polluted and had no role in creating the orphan sites. And in describing the “cuts,” she compares what the EPA regional offices requested—which, given bureaucratic imperatives, is likely to be more than they planned to get—with what the Bush administration allocated. The fair way to compute budget “cuts,” of course, would be to compare what EPA spent last year against this year. But she doesn’t get that number.

Besides including no response by the EPA—not even a “no comment”—Seelye declines to talk to an industry flack or a think-tanker who might take issue with their Superfund alarmism. (Spokespersons from the Edison Wetlands and the League of Conservation Voters get their say.) Do any of the affected 33 sites pose immediate, grave danger to the public health? Are some better candidates for containment rather than immediate cleanup? Is the Bush administration actually doing the environment a favor by performing budget triage, funneling the most money to the neediest sites?

I’m prepared to believe that the Bush administration’s Superfund strategy poses serious health risks to hundreds, thousands, or maybe even millions. Or that George W. Bush personally poisons my tap water. But Seelye’s rewrite of the inspector general’s report hypes a legitimate debate about who should pay to clean up orphan Superfund sites by falsely suggesting that Bush is gutting the program.