A once-in-a-generation chance to clean up Bexar County’s most contaminated toxic waste sites

Toxic threats

For nearly three decades, the Eldorado Chemical Co. manufactured cleaning products and released toxic chemicals used in production, polluting the soil and groundwater in the surrounding area. These chemicals have been linked to an impaired nervous system, liver cancer, and other serious health problems. 

This site, just northeast of San Antonio in Live Oak, is one of the country’s worst toxic waste sites, which is why, in 2016, it was officially added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Superfund” program to-do list. The Eldorado Chemical Co. site, which is bordered by neighborhoods on either side, is one of 56 Superfund priority sites in Texas, giving the Lone Star state the dubious distinction as the state with the sixth most toxic waste sites on the EPA’s list. Due to a serious lack of funding, these sites have suffered from slow cleanup, putting workers, families and children at risk for exposure to hazardous waste. In fact, every year over the last five years, a Superfund site in Texas has had to delay cleanup because of the lack of funding. 

In November, President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) – aka the bipartisan infrastructure bill – a measure which will help set us back on track. The law pumps money into the EPA’s languishing Superfund program by reinstating a “polluter pays” tax on hazardous chemical production.

When the Superfund program first started, polluter-pays taxes were levied on industries to fund Superfund waste cleanup at sites when the responsible party was gone or couldn’t afford the cleanup. This meant that the chemical and oil industries, as well as major polluting corporations had to pay for their role in creating toxic waste pollution. 

In 1995, however, Congress allowed the polluter-pays taxes to lapse. After that, the financial burden for cleaning up these sites increasingly shifted to everyday taxpayers, and there haven’t been enough funds to cover the cost of cleanups. Over the past two decades, the pace of cleanups across the country and here in Texas has slowed to a trickle. Throughout the 1990s, when the Superfund program still had funding from the polluter-pays taxes, the EPA completed construction (a key milestone that indicates the physical installation of the cleanup method is done) at an average of 71 sites each year. From 2011 to 2020, that number fell to an average of 12 per year. From October 1, 2020 through September 30, 2021, the program only completed construction at eight sites.

At toxic waste sites like Eldorado Chemical Co. where groundwater contamination has the potential to affect the Edwards Aquifer, which provides drinking water to 1.7 million people, cleanup hasn’t even started yet. The bipartisan infrastructure bill will provide funds that enable the Superfund program to clean up dangerous toxic waste more quickly and effectively. 

At sites across Texas, new funding will mean that the Superfund program won’t have to wait for decades-long court cases against polluting companies to settle before starting cleanup work. Further, when the EPA is left paying for the cost of cleanup, it has to spread scarce resources across hundreds of sites. With a reinstated polluters-pays tax, American taxpayers will no longer need to foot the bill for toxic pollution that they didn’t create.

Through the IIJA, the polluter-pays tax on hazardous chemicals will once again fund the Superfund program. When the chemical industry is held accountable for the cost of cleaning up its own pollution, we will be able to celebrate a huge win for public health and safety and a renewed opportunity for Texans to live in communities free of toxic waste. 

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Danielle Melgar

Food & Agriculture Advocate, PIRG

Danielle works to ensure our food system produces enough nutritious food to feed everyone, without threatening our health, the planet, or the ability of future generations to grow food. Danielle lives in Chicago, where she enjoys staying active in the outdoors, trying out new recipes, and writing short stories.

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