Infrastructure Bill Would Resurrect Superfund Excise Taxes

The Legal Intelligencer

By Joe Yeager

On Aug. 10, the U.S. Senate passed President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (HR 3684 or Infrastructure Bill) by a vote of 69-30. The $1 trillion Infrastructure Bill received bipartisan support with a proposed $550 billion in new infrastructure spending over the next five years that would be offset by a combination of tax and nontax provisions.

Among other proposals, the Senate bill includes a provision to resurrect a modified version of the long-expired Hazardous Substance Superfund Trust Fund (Superfund) excise tax on chemical manufacturing and imports (Superfund excise taxes). The bill reinstates certain excise taxes to replenish the Superfund, which provides the federal government with resources to respond to environmental threats related to managing hazardous substances.

Congress allowed the excise taxes to expire at the end of 1995, and this absence of funds has forced the Superfund to support cleanup efforts through general disbursements of other tax revenues. Although there have been multiple attempts to reinstate the Superfund excise tax over the course of the last 25 years, none garnered as much bipartisan support.

The new version of the Superfund tax would apply to the production of certain chemicals through Dec. 31, 2031, effective for periods after June 30, 2022. In addition, the Superfund tax will increase the rate of tax per ton on a list of taxable chemicals. Its proponents assert that over the course of 10 years, the new tax is estimated to raise approximately $14.4 billion (or $1.2 billion annually). In support of the Infrastructure Bill, the funds would be specifically aimed at shoring up the Superfund, addressing the overall goals of cleanup and protection of human health and the environment from historical contamination, and bolstering EPA efforts to conduct additional investigations and collect more data on newer sites.

As anticipated, there is opposition by industry (led by the American Chemistry Council) with claims that the reintroduction of the Superfund tax would result in shrinking profit margins and place the United States at a disadvantage in the global chemical industry. The American Chemistry Council condemns the new version of the infrastructure tax because they believe it uniquely focuses on chemical manufacturers and importers (the new Superfund tax differs from the original in that it does not impose tax on oil and petroleum). Historically, the Superfund was funded by three excise taxes applied to oil and petroleum products, chemicals and hazardous substances. The prior funding was intended to seek compensation from those entities deemed responsible for contamination. The proposed Superfund excise taxes are not directed at any particular responsible party, rather the tax will be imposed entirely on those companies that import or produce chemicals, chemical compounds or chemical byproducts. Thus, this new tax could unfairly impact a small subset of the industrial sectors that may have contributed to pollution. According to the opposition, the result of this tax will be the forced closure of more than 40 chemical plants and the loss of thousands of industry-related jobs. In addition, the new Superfund tax would likely increase the cost of a variety of consumer goods, including many of the materials needed for infrastructure and climate improvement.

Assuming the bill passes the House and is signed into law by Biden, a logical next question is how this money be used. The intent of the new tax is to provide monies to EPA in order to boost funding of its Superfund program. It is expected that the monies collected would be applied to contaminated sites without viable responsible parties, known as orphan sites. However, the EPA has also intimated it would like to use some of the new revenue to conduct new investigations about newer sites.

The Senate-passed Infrastructure Bill is currently held up in Congress as talks continue on the passage of the overall act, but there is a strong belief that it will pass because it is viewed as an old tax brought back to life. The Superfund tax is promoted by the Biden administration as a way to advance an increased interest in the environment and as a reliable revenue source to help clean up a backlog of legacy orphan sites. Further, there is bipartisan support to fund the bill due to its potential to offset expenses of the overall Infrastructure Bill without raising new broad-based taxes.

The Senate bill has moved to the House of Representatives for approval and is still pending. It will not become law until it has been approved by the House and signed by Biden.

Although developments continue to unfold, including opposition in Congress, resurrection of the Superfund tax could take some months for the House and Senate to pass a final reconciliation tax bill.

Babst Calland Clements & Zomnir environmental attorneys will continue to track Superfund developments and their implications to the industry in the coming months.

Click here to view the article online in the November issue of the Legal Intelligencer.

Reprinted with permission from the November 4, 2021 edition of The Legal Intelligencer© 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.