Cleaning Up Superfund

Superfund is a prime example of well-intentioned legislation with unintended results. Passed in 1980 in the wake of the Love Canal disaster in New York, the law laid out a procedure for cleaning up toxic waste sites throughout the country. It included a federal fund for covering some cleanup costs, though most of the cost was to be recovered from polluters themselves.

Over the years, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (a mouthful soon shortened to "Superfund") generated its own legal and political sludge pools. It underwent significant revisions in 1986 and '90, and it faces further reforms in the current Congress.

Horror stories about Superfund litigation continue to surface. They often involve small businesses that find themselves sucked into a legal bog because they innocently dumped garbage in a local landfill later designated a Superfund site. Alas, those unintended results.

But are such accounts sufficient argument for overhauling the law, or maybe even junking it? Here are a couple of points to consider:

* From the start, lawmakers recognized a need to avoid ensnarling, and possible ruining, minor contributors to contamination. Means of alleviating their liability were built into the law. Still, lawyers representing large companies have proven adept at drawing into Superfund lawsuits any local businesses who may have used a waste disposal site. Their goal, of course, is to spread liability around. Recent administrative changes by the Environmental Protection Agency have given added protections to such "small fry." Congress is likely to add further legislative safeguards as well.

* Critics typically flail the law for doing little to meet its original goals. The standard line is that "Superfund is a super-failure." The cleanup process is slow-moving, to be sure - partly because of endless litigation, much of which involves companies charged with pollution suing each other or suing their insurers. But the problem addressed by Superfund is itself vast, and advancing technology has enhanced both the ability to identify toxic sites and to clean them. The number of sites needing cleanup has grown from 400 in 1980 to some 1,300 today. Of those, about 400 have undergone extensive work and are suitable for reuse. Residual problems with groundwater seepage, however, keep many of these sites on the Superfund list even after most work is completed. At another 500 sites, extensive work is under way. Many others have been given short-term emergency cleanups to reduce immediate threats to the environment or to human health. So the law has not been devoid of accomplishment.

* Superfund's existence is itself a deterrent to further polluting. Companies are only too aware of the costs of liability and cleanup. Tougher governmental regulation of toxic-waste disposal would add a further ounce of prevention.

Adjustments in the law should ease liability for smaller parties and establish clearer standards for adequacy of cleanup. Communities and local citizens should be given more say in what kind of remedies are used at a site and how the land is reused. Businesses should take a positive role in cleanups, but companies responsible for pollution should not be given carte blanche to design their own cleanup plans, as some feel currently proposed legislation would allow.

Superfund is an imperfect tool, but it's the best we have for a job that's still far from finished.

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