Keeping Superfund funded Revenues at risk: Assuring money, standards is basic to reform of cleanup program.

November 20, 1995

TAXES ON BUSINESS that finance the Superfund toxic dump cleanup program to the tune of $1.5 billion a year are in double jeopardy, as legislators jostle for position to reform the 15-year-old effort.

One threat is to divert Superfund taxes to offset revenue losses from proposed tax breaks. Some $3 billion was used this way in the past, so it is a familiar, handy recourse for Congress.

The second threat to Superfund, which assuredly is in need of reform, is that the program's taxation authority ends this year. The tax on chemical processors and large corporations must be reauthorized, or the program will fail Congress's requirement for self-funding, dependent on annual doles from the Treasury.

Assured funding is needed to achieve meaningful reform of Superfund, which has placed 1,300 sites on the National Priority List for remediation and about 14,000 more sites under further study for possible listing. (Maryland has 14 sites, five on federal land.)

Major problems persist: too much spent on litigating liability for cleanup costs, excessive cleanup standards for some waste sites, a poor system of assessing health risks of dumps and of choosing cost-effective strategies.

Much debate centers on the issue of retroactive liability, of making polluters pay for cleanup of wastes dumped before the 1980 law was enacted (or tightened in 1987), and on the provision that makes any contributor liable for the entire cleanup cost.

Nearly half of the money spent on Superfund projects has gone for litigation and administration instead of on actual cleanup. Only 74 priority list sites have been delisted since 1981, and it takes an average 10 years and $30 million to decontaminate and restore one site.

Elements of any reform effort should promote flexibility in crafting remedies, look to arbitration to assign proportional responsibility, focus on sites with most immediate, likely dangers and provide adequate funding. Limited relief for public-owned landfills is justified.

House and Senate bills aim to cut Superfund spending by a third, relax cleanup standards and shrink polluter liability by offering rebates of cleanup costs. That troubling concept of paying polluters may jeopardize the legislation.

But if liability rules are changed, money must be found to make up any resulting shortfall. Those funds should come from the pockets of responsible parties, not from taxpayers.

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