The price of poisonous dumps

Congress is about to open debate on critically important legislation that would create a so-called government "superfund" to clean up oil and chemical spills as well as give federal officials new authority to take similar action in regard to dump sites for hazardous wastes. In the wake of the Love Canal tragedy in Niagara Falls, New York, the US Environmental Protection Agency has identified 6,000 waste sites across the US containing potentially harmful toxic substances; of the 10 percent it has investigated thoroughly thus far, 324 were found to require remedial action, 27 to need substantial work -- estimated to cost between $400 million and $900 million.

It should be clear from such tentative findings that large sums will be needed to render such dump sites safe. The proposed superfund properly would put most of the financial burden on the oil and chemical industries which in the main are responsible for spills and have prospered over the years from inexpensive, largely unregulated dumping. More important, the legislation would allow the government to respond quickly to a spill or when hazardous seepage from a dump site threatens a nearby community. Under current law the federal government has no authority to clean up hazardous waste sites, and in only certain instances is it empowered to respond to a spill on navigable waters. Too often in an emergency valuable time is lost determining whether the substance involved is one the EPA is entitled to act upon.

Of the proposals before the two houses of Congress the Senate version is considerably stronger, providing what seems to be more realistic financial protection ($4.1 billion over six years) against spills and dump seepages. Moreover, the House bill fails to provide protection against spills during transport. The Senate bill gives the EPA broader clean-up authority.

The Senate version, too, would require offenders to compensate victims of such disasters and would hold companies strictly liable for any reckless dumping. Not only would the bill help victims with costly court costs, it would make it easier for them to obtain evidence needed to pursue their cases. Holding companies liable financially for their disposal practices would no doubt add to the consumer price of chemical products, but it should also serve as a strong deterrent to careless or irresponsible dumping and shipping practices.

The need for tougher preventive measures in handling and storing toxic substances was underscored by a Library of Congress report last week which warned that the 43,000 chemicals currently in commercial use are "so long-lasting and so pervasive in the environment that virtually the entire human population of the nation, and indeed the world, carries some body burden of one or several of them." At the same time the US Surgeon General also cautioned against the significant health risks believed to be associated with the use of toxic chemicals in society. The proposed federal superfund would increase public protection around abandoned dumps nd from toxic spills. Congress should enact a strong measure -- and do it soon.

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