Twenty years after a toxic waste crisis at Love Canal, some activists believe the nation's worst polluters are now contributing tens of millions of dollars to members of Congress in an effort to weaken the Superfund law that requires polluters to pay for environmental cleanups.
According to a just-released study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Utah's GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, a co-sponsor of Super-fund reauthorization legislation, is near the top of the list of those accepting political contributions from companies and organizations seeking to weaken the law."It is outrageous that the oil, chemical and insurance industries are trying to roll back Superfund," said Amy Curry, a Utah-based staffer for the research group. "General Electric, DuPont and other big polluters hate this law because of the polluter-pays principle which says the companies that create the worst toxic waste sites in the country have to pay to clean them up, and not the tax-payer."
According to the report, called "Polluter Pay-Off," between 1991 and 1997 Hatch accepted $368,738 from political action committees considered by the research group to be anti-Superfund. That amount was the 13th highest among the 100 senators.
Hatch spokeswoman Heather Barney said it is ludicrous for the research group to claim the legislation under consideration is anti-Superfund. In reality, she said, the bill reauthorizes Superfund laws but with additional requirements that more money go to cleanup of toxic wastes and less to attorneys. It requires that cleanup projects be completed faster.
"You have to ask why this group is calling for the status quo when the status quo means most of the Superfund money goes to attorneys," Barney said. "Senator Hatch wants more money for actual cleanup, and he wants to speed up the cleanup. Their rhetoric on this subject does not make sense."
According to the study, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, accepted $222,692 - enough for a ranking of 46th. Utah's senior Rep. James Hansen accepted $149,761 from anti-Superfund PACs, the study found. That was 112th highest among the 435 representatives listed in the report. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, accepted $48,836 (290th ranking) and Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, received $42,858 (311th ranking).
However, both Cook and Cannon were in office only one year at the time the study was completed; Hansen was in office all six years included in the study.
Some 188 industry "anti"-Superfund PACs contributed $96.8 million to incumbent lawmakers, the study found. Darren Speece, campaign director for the research group, said the millions being spent to weaken the Superfund law are one more example of why campaign finance reform is needed.
"We need to clean up toxic waste dumps to protect our children, and we need to clean up Congress to protect our democracy," he said.
However, a list of the 188 PACs lists some organizations with fairly vague ties to Superfund legislation, groups such as the National Auto Dealers Association, the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Convenience Stores and the Independent Insurance Agents of America.
"What is their criteria for establishing that a group is anti-Superfund or that their contributions were anti-Superfund?" Barney questioned. "Every few months, this group throws out more numbers and hyperbole as so-called facts, and there is never any way to substantiate their data."
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group is best known for its campaign to ban so-called soft money contributions, to limit campaign contributions to $100, to require politicians to raise most of their money from people they represent, to provide substantial free media exposure to candidates and to pass a constitutional amendment limiting campaign spending and contributions.
The report indicates Utah's three representatives have done nothing to support strong Superfund legislation, and it called on Hansen, Cannon and Cook to support HR3262, which would strengthen the Superfund law, and HR1636, which would expand the public's right to know about toxic chemicals used in the workplace, consumer products and communities.
Utah has 15 Superfund sites in various states of cleanup. Some, like the Sharon Steel and Vitro sites, have been reclaimed, while others, like the Midvale Slag site and the Monticello mill tailings, are in the early stages of cleanup.