Congressional Attempts to Reform Law

Hardly anybody loves Superfund - at least as currently written and enforced. President Clinton has called it ''a disaster.'' House Speaker Newt Gingrich terms it ''a national disgrace.'' But it's been far harder to agree on what to do about the law.

Under Clinton, the EPA has been initiating what it calls ''common sense administrative reforms'' designed to make Superfund ''faster, fairer, and more efficient.'' EPA officials also have been removing thousands of locations from the list of potential Superfund sites in order to eliminate a stigma that can lower property values or prevent development.

In 1994 (when Democrats still controlled both congressional chambers), a ''Superfund Reform Act'' was put together that would have sped up toxic-site restoration, cut costs, and eliminated the need for so many complicated and time-consuming lawsuits by making the process fairer.

That bill won approval in five congressional committees, and it had the support of such diverse groups as the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the American Insurance Association, the American Bankers Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club. But compromise turned to squabbling, time ran out in the 103rd Congress, and reform advocates had to start from scratch when the GOP took over on Capitol Hill.

The main Superfund reform proposal in Congress comes from Rep. Michael Oxley (R) of Ohio, who chairs the House subcommittee dealing with hazardous materials. This would scale back retroactive liability, involve communities and states more in decisionmaking, and make greater use of risk assessment and cost-benefit analyses in deciding which sites need a full Superfund response.

''Superfund has become a welfare program for lawyers,'' Mr. Oxley says. Oxley claims his measure would save $2 billion a year in public and private dollars and reduce program costs by 35 percent. The Oxley bill is supported by a coalition of manufacturers, insurers, and county governments. But EPA administrator Carol Browner says, ''It falls far short in meeting the mark of protecting public health and the environment.''

Meanwhile, EPA enforcement of Superfund - for now - has been cut considerably in the federal budget fight. This worries some Republicans, Democrats, and environmentalists.

''The prospect of having to shut down ongoing toxic waste dump cleanup efforts ... is unacceptable,'' the New Jersey congressional delegation recently declared. New Jersey has more Superfund sites than any other state.

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