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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...