THE House's vote last week, 220 to 206, to have the nation's chemical and oil companies pay much of the cost of financing Superfund is good news for the environment. Reps. Thomas J. Downey (D) of New York and William Frenzel (R) of Minnesota were behind the successful proposal to increase the ``feedstock tax,'' which has already been financing Superfund for a few years now. Chemical manufacturers pay this tax up front and then pass it along to their industrial customers, who in many cases do the actual disposing of toxic waste.
This arrangement bypasses the question of assigning blame for the toxic waste disaster areas -- many of them ``orphans'' -- which the Superfund is intended to clean up. It assumes that if X gallons of a certain toxic chemical are produced by a certain company, then Y dollars should be available for cleanup down the line somewhere.
It is easier to track a chemical firm's production of certain substances than it is to count the truckloads of toxic waste being carted off out the back gate at a manufacturing plant.
Environmentalists have praised the feedstock tax for being easy to administer and for providing a steady stream of revenue.
It's not a foregone conclusion, however, that the chemical manufacturers will be able to pass along the feedstock tax to their customers.
Theirs is a globally competitive industry, where a price difference of a few cents a ton can make or break a sale. A study of last year's House proposal, similar to the Downey-Frenzel measure, estimated that such a tax would cost the United States 30,000 jobs and worsen the trade deficit.
That remains to be seen. But clearly a defilement of the environment cannot be accepted as the price for a robust industry.
As for those who want ``polluters to pay,'' it should be noted that the House's Superfund bill does include a ``waste-end tax.'' That is, firms who truck their waste off to the dump will have to kick in a certain amount per load for Superfund. This will not, though, be the major source of Superfund money.
The House measure will have to be reconciled with that of the Senate, which to finance Superfund has approved a so-called manufacturers' excise tax, levied on the excess of sales over production costs.
Environmentalists oppose this tax because it violates the ideal of ``the polluter pays.'' It would apply to a very broad range of manufacturers, however much or little waste they produce.
The tax has also been criticized as an attempt to sneak a value-added tax, or a national sales tax, in through a side door.
``If we're all polluters, why not fund Superfund out of general revenues?'' some ask. Never mind whether that would let polluters off the hook. With the current budget deficit, that's not a realistic option.
It's important that Superfund be funded, and generously enough (the House voted $10 billion over five years, the Senate only $7.5 billion) and get moving. It has to date cleaned up only six sites on its national priority list of some 850, and the Environmental Protection Agency has had to backpedal on one of them, when it became apparent that its cleanup job was not so thorough as had been given out.
And Superfund's site list may be getting longer soon. To the surprise of EPA, only about one-third of the nation's nearly 1,600 so-called RCRA (``Resource Conservation and Recovery Act'') sites have demonstrated that they have proper monitoring wells and liability insurance to enable them continue accepting waste.
Those that did not meet the Nov. 8 deadline for certification were to have stopped accepting waste immediately and to take steps to seal their sites permanently.
If industry feels EPA will not be carefully monitoring the closure of RCRA sites (what one might think of as ``normal'' toxic dumps, in contrast to the more problematic Superfund sites), some of those sites may end up as Superfund sites after all.