Hazardous waste Superfund needs a super overhaul

Since Congress enacted the so-called Superfund program more than three years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cleaned up only six hazardous chemical waste sites, only two with direct assistance from the Superfund. Surely , this snail-like pace is a prescription for disaster.

If Superfund is supposed to be an effective war against hazardous chemical waste dumps, then we have yet to fire the first shot. And if this is a marathon, then the EPA is in danger of failing to reach the finish line. At the present cleanup rate it's going to take the agency 273 years to clean up the 546 hazardous chemical waste sites on the national priorities list.

Unfortunately, the EPA is proving that lethargy is the common enemy of progress and good government. And, as is the case with many other issues in Washington, neglect of a problem becomes our worst enemy and intransigence is the ally of that neglect. Under the administration of President Reagan, EPA seems to have forgotten its mission: that ''protection'' of the environment and the public health and welfare is what its mission is all about.

The record becomes all the more disturbing when one analyzes the magnitude of the nation's hazardous waste problem. Consider, for example, that there are probably 1,000 to 2,200 other hazardous waste sites waiting in the wings to be added to the national priorities list. Consider, too, that a study paid for by the Chemical Manufacturers Association estimates - probably conservatively - that there are 13,400 ''inactive'' hazardous waste dumps littering the nation's landscape. At least 3,700 of these are likely to require some federal assistance in the cleanup process.

In evaluating hazardous waste sites for the national priorities list, the EPA has identified at least 444 separate chemical pollutants. An agency task force reports that ''virtually all of the most commonly encountered of these are known to exhibit chronic toxicity and therefore may cause human health injuries after months or years at extremely low levels of exposure.''

There is ample evidence of these chemical pollutants mixing with one another and leaking into ground-water supplies. An EPA study estimates that 29 percent of the ground-water supplies of larger communities contain chemical contaminants. Of the 546 hazardous waste sites now on the national priorities list, more than 300 pose a threat to water supplies. Serious cases of chemically contaminated water have been reported in 34 states.

The Harvard School of Public Health has found increases of illness in children who drank chemically contaminated water in some neighborhoods of Woburn , Mass. The Harvard study in Woburn also found that it is no exaggeration to argue that the hazardous waste problem poses a threat to those yet unborn.

The House is considering a bill to fundamentally reform the Superfund program. The original five-year, $1.6 billion program is likely to be able to finance the cleanup of only about 170 of the 546 hazardous waste sites on the national priorities list. The new bill proposes to expand Superfund to a five-year, $9 billion program. At the very least the reforms under consideration would begin to more significantly address the scope of a problem on which Congress's Office of Technology Assessment has put a $10 billion to $40 billion price tag.

More important, the new Superfund bill contains strict provisions requiring the EPA to respond to a reasonable and timely cleanup schedule. It's time to give the agency explicit cleanup orders that force more aggressive and effective action. Congress can no longer afford to rely on the EPA to act based on implied and well-intentioned discretionary authority in the language of the Superfund law.

The new legislation also addresses the serious issue of compensation for victims of hazardous waste sites. The present Superfund program fails to provide any adequate remedies for health care costs or deaths associated with exposure to hazardous chemical wastes.

The judicial system and programs such as workers' compensation in the states have failed to provide proper assistance to victims of hazardous wastes. The new legislation establishes a strict right to sue either in state or federal courts and puts into effect a uniform statute of limitations that is fair and reasonable to victims of hazardous wastes.

Surely, the case for reform is persuasive. Preserving the status quo is unacceptable. Business as usual won't do. Superfund must be made to mean what its title implies. Otherwise we will continue to put in jeopardy the health of too many of our citizens. People who suffer hardship essentially through no fault of their own have a basic right to petition their government for assistance. And a government worthy of their trust and confidence must respond in a proper and fitting fashion.

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