Reforming Superfund

March 03, 1994

There's little doubt that the Superfund hazardous waste program has generated too many lawsuits and too few cleanups in its 14 years. Only 15 percent of the nearly 1,300 sites officially identified as health risks have been decontaminated. Half the $13.5 billion spent by government and business on projects has gone for litigation and administration.

In large measure, that miserable result is the legacy of the Reagan tenure: an environmental administration that strove to let big bucks polluters off the hook, the ensuing backlash by Congress to impose rigid, extreme requirements that denied flexible settlements and thus escalated the level of legal action over liability.

With a quarter of the nation's population now living within a few miles of a toxic waste dump, there is urgent need for reform and effective action. Some 11,500 other sites are targeted for future Superfund priority listing.

President Clinton last month proposed a major overhaul of the program that would restore flexibility in taking remedial action, use arbitration to allocate proportional liability for dumps, strengthen local involvement in decisions and raise more money by taxing insurance companies to help clean up older dump sites.

This ambitious program aims to limit lawsuits, while holding businesses responsible for pollution that was caused prior to 1986, when federal record-keeping rules made it easier to pinpoint the source of hazardous materials. Companies could challenge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's arbitration decision in court, but they could also be sued by other companies. Businesses accepting arbitration could not be sued by others who contributed to the site's pollution.

Superfund officials would also ask the important question "How clean is clean?" in developing different levels of cleanup, partly based on the "probable future use" of the waste site. Instead of incinerating tons of tainted soil at enormous cost, for example, the dump ground might be paved over if the use was to be a parking lot and not a playground. This flexibility could cut cleanup costs by 25 percent, the administration estimates.

Details of the plan are likely to change as it is dissected by Congress, which may well prefer delay until after this year's elections. A no-fault cleanup fund financed by a business taxes is favored by other groups. But the president's plan presents a promising, studied approach to a demanding national problem -- a good start for revamping the current law that has won few friends and a host of powerful critics.

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