House Chooses Nuclear Space Flight Over Superfund
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, July 28, 2003 (ENS) - The House turned back an effort Friday to fully fund the Bush administration's 2004 request for the Superfund program, opting not to divert $115 million from an initiative to develop nuclear powered space flight in order to fund additional efforts to clean up hazardous waste sites.
The move comes amid rising concerns that the Superfund program is being undermined by a lack of funding - cleanup of existing sites has fallen by some 50 percent in the last two years.
The provision was offered by Representatives Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican, as an amendment to the House spending bill for several federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
It was easily defeated with 309 members voting against and only 114 in favor.
"It is very disappointing to see so many members place the health of their communities so low on their list of political priorities, and is impossible to justify as a matter of environmental justice or wise allocation of scarce federal funding," Markey commented on the vote.
The Bush administration, which has been blasted by environmentalists for the slowdown in clean up at Superfund sites, asked for $1.39 billion. The failure of the amendment means the House has provided the Superfund program with $1.275 billion for fiscal year 2004 - in line with the $1.27 billion it appropriated for the current fiscal year.
The House leadership says the limited increase is the result of its policy of strict fiscal discipline. The Bush administration recently announced that the budget deficit could be as high as $400 billion.
Markey told House colleagues that the amendment struck the necessary balance "our exploration of the stars and our preservation of the Earth."
The $279 billion the House has put forth for Prometheus is in line with the Bush administration's request and is a 133 percent increase over the program's 2003 appropriations. This figure includes $186 million for the Nuclear Systems Initiative and $93 million for a first flight mission - known as the Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter (JIMO).
Taking $115 million out of the initiative and allocating it to the Superfund program, Markey said, would give Prometheus a 31 percent increase and afford Superfund a nine percent increase over 2003 levels.
"It is an issue of priorities," Bass added. "The moons of Jupiter are going nowhere, but the people who live around these Superfund sites are people that are affected and potentially affected by this issue every single day."
Supporters of the amendment noted that earlier this month, the EPA announced 20 new Superfund sites and acknowledged that only 11 would be funded.
"We are not keeping up with our Superfund responsibilities," said Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat.
But opponents of the amendment said that nuclear powered space flight is integral to the future of space exploration and that Prometheus is too important to be cut.
The money allocated by the House for Superfund "keeps cleanups going at a steady pace," said New York Republican Jim Walsh. The $115 million cut to the space initiative would "severely hamper the operations of NASA."
"It would also place in jeopardy many worthwhile space and Earth missions which would improve the understanding of our world, basic knowledge, which we, as humans, strive for," Walsh said.
Aerospace giants Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman have each been awarded multimillion dollar contracts to develop design studies for the orbiter.
Speaking against the amendment, California Republican David Drier said the cut in funding for the space project would "be extraordinarily short-sighted."
"If you do not take risks, you are not going to learn anything," said Drier.
Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank countered that Americans ought not to have to "take the risk of living next to a Superfund site."
Seventy million people live within four miles of a Superfund site and 10 million are children. Children are most vulnerable to the arsenic, DDT and brain-damaging toxins like lead and mercury that are found in the water and soil at these locations.
Last year, 46 sites that requested cleanup funds did not receive full funding, resulting in a 45 percent shortfall in funding.
And earlier this year, Congress voted against reinstating the polluter pays tax, which forces polluters to pay the bill for toxic cleanups at Superfund sites. The provision expired in 1995, when the trust fund was at a historic high of some $3.6 billion.
The fund is likely to be completely depleted by 2004, forcing the government to pay entirely for future Superfund cleanup.
The bill passed Friday included a total of $8.01 billion for the EPA, $375 million more than the Bush administration requested but some $1 million less than Congress gave the agency last year.
Although generally displeased with the funding levels in the bill, environmentalists hailed the decision by the House to reject the Bush administration's proposal to cut the EPA's enforcement staff amid widespread concern that enforcement at the agency is underfunded and understaffed.
The Senate has yet to consider the EPA's budget for fiscal 2004 and will not discuss it until after the August recess.