WASHINGTON — ON Superfund, the federal program to clean up hazardous-waste sites, there is one point of universal agreement: It needs to be overhauled.
But with only 30-plus legislative days left in this calendar year, Congress will be hard put to squeeze a Superfund reform through as it focuses on the priority issue of health care reform.
``It's a frustrating game of beat the clock,'' says a Clinton administration official who has worked for months behind the scenes to keep congressional reauthorization of the program on track.
Congressional authorization of the program expires at the end of September, and Environmental Protection Agency sources say the EPA can keep the program going for a while without reauthorization, but that the program would begin to contract within the year.
Don Clay, who ran Superfund under the Bush administration, can rattle off 10 possible scenarios in which reform is derailed - from environmentalists getting cold feet if the Clinton administration gives away too much on cleanup standards to a schism among insurance groups that gets serious enough to stop reform - but when asked which he felt was most likely, Mr. Clay said: ``They'll just run out of time.''
A hangup over reauthorization in 1986 dealt the program a major blow, with pink slips going out at EPA on a weekly basis. In a speech this week to hazardous-waste contractors, EPA administrator Carol Browner highlighted the damage to development of new cleanup technologies caused by the 1986 setback.
The 14-year-old program, born of the Love Canal and Valley of the Drums toxic-waste crises, has had some successes, but far more often has been bogged down by a legal structure that seems to produce more litigation than cleanup and a strong sense of public alienation.
Reform of Superfund has already been brought back from near extinction once this spring. After a lengthy process of interagency study and an unusual consensus hammered out by industry, environmental, and grass-roots organizations, the Clinton administration unveiled its legislation in February. But the plan quickly ran aground, mainly over the issue of cleanup standards.
Rep. Al Swift (D) of Washington, a key proponent of Superfund who chairs the Subcommittee on Transportation and Hazardous Materials, had a staffer try to work out a compromise between industry leaders and environmentalists. After six weeks, her effort failed, and Congressman Swift declared he was throwing in the towel.
But EPA chief Browner wasn't ready to give up and got her staff to give it a shot. She then took their proposals and, according to an EPA source, called 20 chief executive officers and asked them to tell her what they didn't like and how it could be fixed. In early May, 40 CEOs, several Cabinet members, and Superund's main congressional patrons gathered at the White House to finalize the administration's new proposal.
To an outsider, the changes in the administration's plan may seem picky. For example, the February proposal for ``national cleanup levels'' was changed to a ``national cleanup formula,'' which translates into more site-specific prescriptions for cleanup.
Another snag that was smoothed out involved the role of states in Superfund. The February bill included a program that authorized states to take over the federal program and run it themselves. But some environmentalists and polluters were concerned the states would not follow the new federal plan, so the revised bill now ensures that states will implement the reforms.
Many delicate compromises have gone into this final bill, and if reauthorization is not completed this year, EPA and Capitol Hill sources predict the next Congress will have to start from scratch, which could push passage of a bill into 1996.
``The new Congress won't just rubber-stamp what we've done,'' says a House aide, pointing out that large turnover in membership is predicted. Swift, for one, is retiring from Congress.
Working in the bill's favor is its unanimous 44-0 approval by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 18. But it needs approval by several more House and Senate committees before it can go for floor votes, a House-Senate conference, and final passage.
``Crunch time begins in early September,'' says an EPA source.
A key question remains over how committed the House and Senate leadership are to pushing reform through, and how much muscle the White House is willing to flex on Superfund as it focuses on health care. The fall elections could provide a boost to the reform cause, as members will want a passed environmental bill to show their constituents.