« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Who needs Superfund when we’ve got reality TV?

  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 Congress.

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 cafeteria.

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 proficient.

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.

A second 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."

Joshua Zaffos is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Paonia, Colorado.