By the end of the year, only $28 million will be left in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund account. Superfund pays for the reclamation of abandoned toxic waste sites, and $28 million barely affords a study just to figure out how to clean up one of the 1,200 deserted dumps wasting away in American communities.
How did Superfund, which
used to have an annual account ledger of $1.5 billion, end up
functionally bankrupt? Going back to 1995, the
Republican-controlled Congress killed off the corporate "polluter
tax" that levied money from petroleum and chemical industries that
are responsible for the abandoned toxic messes. The tax was a
keystone in the creation of Superfund by President Carter in 1980,
and it supplied more than $1 billion annually. Without the tax,
states and taxpayers were left footing the bill after 1995.
Toxic sludge infiltrating the water and air quality in
1,200 communities sounds like a pressing issue. But President Bush
has halved the number of annual Superfund clean-ups compared to
President Clinton, and he’s refused to reauthorize the
"polluter tax" even though he could easily jockey the bill through
Meanwhile, the EPA made its boldest budgetary
allowance by announcing the allocation of $30,000 to promote
"environmentally beneficial behavior" on prime-time television
sitcoms and dramas. Through the new campaign, the EPA will place
environmental messages on popular shows hoping viewers will mimic
their favorite actors.
Picture Will & Grace
composting in the back alley of their Manhattan apartment. Or CSI:
Crime Scene Investigation detectives properly disposing of their
forensic lab byproducts. Malcolm in the Middle might sport a canvas
bag with the EPA logo to carry his recyclables from the school
Of course, $30,000 is just a drop in the tube,
and the modest budget would afford about a second of commercial
time during the American Idol finale. The agency admits it will
pursue charitable partnerships with TV producers, since to buy a
product placement spot in a prime-time show the EPA would have to
pay up to $1 million.
The campaign allows the EPA to
reach the American people where they’re most attentive and
vulnerable: on their couches. Jay Leno’s curbside interviews
on The Tonight Show prove that more people know the names of the
American Idol finalists than the recently resigned EPA
administrator (Christie Todd Whitman, for those playing along at
home). The EPA’s primetime push allows President Bush to do
some cheap green-washing in people’s living rooms while
Superfund dwindles and other environmental quality laws such as the
Clean Air Act are gutted.
Thirty thousand bucks is just a
drop for Superfund, too. The chump change allocated for TV
wouldn’t clean up one-thousandth of an average Superfund
site. What the television campaign reveals is that the
administration cares a lot more about being popular than being
If the EPA is going to dive into primetime,
why not do it Hollywood-style? Take the leftover $28 million from
the dregs of the Superfund account and put on a reality show!
Choose Whitman’s replacement as the new EPA chief
through a show like Survivor. Challenges for the contestants could
include sidestepping around U.S. compliance with the Kyoto Protocol
or rolling back the regulations of the Clean Air Act. Chemical
manufacturers could hand down immunity. The process would whittle
down contestants for the EPA chief position while bringing
Americans up to speed on President Bush’s environmental
agenda and attracting commercial revenue.
approach is for the EPA to boost its sagging Superfund program
through a show like American Idol. Imagine communities littered
with toxic waste competing for funding by showcasing their talents
in the face of environmental degradation and mysterious health
afflictions. The winning towns could use their newfound cash to
perform the cleanups the government won’t, while local
economies left stricken by industries that ran out on the bill
would be revitalized.
But if the EPA really wants to
promote some "environmentally beneficial behavior," the agency
might as well just use its $30,000 to print 30,000 bumper stickers
reading: "Kill Your Television."