Toxic politics

July 22, 2002

EIGHT LONG years ago, it was widely recognized that the Environmental Protection Agency's effort to clean up the country's most seriously polluted sites -- generally known as the Superfund program -- was simply not working.

Manufacturers, environmentalists, insurance companies and local officials agreed that it was unfair, way too costly, and marginal at best in its results.

The Clinton administration hammered out a compromise bill that would have allowed more money to be spent on cleaning up than on lawyers, that would have created an insurance fund to cover cases where there were disputes over liability, and that would have established more flexible standards by recognizing that some substances are more toxic than others and that 100 percent eradication of pollutants in some situations is not always the most sensible course.

The bill made a tremendous amount of sense, but Republicans in Congress scuttled it. That left the old program intact -- rigid, bureaucratic and unwieldy as it was. At 80 percent of the sites, the firms that caused the pollution had to pay to clean it up. At the remainder, where the polluter had since gone out of business, the work was to be paid for by a special tax on chemical and oil companies.

But the following year, after Republicans had taken power in both houses of Congress, that special tax was allowed to lapse. A fund that had built up to $3.8 billion has diminished ever since, and by the end of this year will amount to about $28 million.

In response, the Bush administration has slowed spending and turned increasingly to the general fund. This comes after a pronounced deceleration in the pace of cleanups since Bill Clinton left office.

Environmentalists accuse the White House of having a larger agenda -- to shift the entire Superfund burden off the companies that do the harm and onto the taxpayers instead. They argue that this is yet another case where the Bush administration is letting big business off the hook at the expense of ordinary Americans. They worry, as well, that the administration will try to turn the program over to the states -- which in these financial times would be tantamount to killing it.

Broadly speaking, they are right. The EPA is taking a broken system and breaking it some more. From President Bush on down, it's evident that the administration has given scant thought to correcting the Superfund program's glaring flaws, but is hoping that it will all just go away.

That's reprehensible. The point, though, is that Superfund needs to be fixed, not defended. Some mechanism will have to be devised to replenish the money; the old special tax wasn't particularly fair, because it was levied equally on clean companies and despoilers alike.

But a blueprint for a better program is already at hand -- it was drawn up eight years ago, in the White House.

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