Air, land, water bills crowd congressional docket. Decision time for the environment

FOR Congress, 1985 could well be a sort of Year of the Environment. This will not be by choice. Major pollution issues, from toxic dump cleanup funds to ground-water contamination, are piled up in congressional ``IN'' boxes, and need to be addressed.

Then again, these issues may stay buried on Capitol Hill desks, under a pile of budget resolutions. In recent years Congress has simply become deadlocked on many environmental bills.

``I think they've been arguing about the Clean Air Act ever since I've lived here,'' says one environmental lobbyist. ``I've lived here six years.''

The Clean Air Act is indeed as stuck as a cat up a tree. Congress has been trying to update the now-expired act since 1981, but legislators can't agree on expensive acid rain provisions. Drinking-water standards have also been the subject of long and fruitless congressional debate.

``There's an [environmental] standoff in Congress -- maybe it reflects a standoff in the country,'' says William Reilly, president of the Conservation Foundation.

Congress's environmental agenda lines up this way: SUPERFUND

Refurbishing ``Superfund,'' the toxic dump cleanup law, is probably the most pressing environmental task facing Congress in 1985. If nothing is done, Superfund will turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, Sept. 30. That's when the tax on chemical companies, which raises most of its money, expires.

Last year, Democrats pushed hard for a Superfund reauthorization. An ambitious $10 billion bill passed the House, but its Senate companion disappeared, due at least in part to administration opposition.

With Superfund, the main issue is money: how much, and from where.

Everybody involved, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agree that the current $1.6 billion fund is not big enough to clean up all the Love Canals and Times Beaches toxic-dumping disasters in the United States. Environmentalists and their allies say Superfund needs some $8 billion to $10 billion over the next four years; the Reagan administration reportedly intends to ask Congress for $5 billion over five years.

Currently, about 90 percent of the program's money comes from a tax levied on crude petroleum and basic ``feedstock'' chemicals. One way to raise new Superfund revenue would be simply to jack up this tax. The prospect of this terrorizes chemical industries, who feel they are now paying their fair share and that other sources of revenue should be found. A new ``waste end'' tax on dump operators is being considered as an alternative source of cash.

The US must also still decide ``what it is we want Superfund to be,'' in the words of former EPA administrator William D. Ruckleshaus. The original Superfund, established in 1980, was a quick response to a hazily outlined problem.

A number of details need to be addressed: As far as toxic dumps are concerned, how clean is clean? Should victims of hazardous waste be entitled to compensation from the Superfund cash pile?

Victim compensation in particular is sure to spark lively debate. ``If the Bhopal, India, accident had occurred here, theoretically Superfund wouldn't have applied'' to help the victims, notes one congressional aide.

``We are optimistic about action on Superfund,'' says another congressional staff member, ``but it is not a foregone conclusion it will pass.'' CLEAN WATER ACT

A new Clean Water Act almost passed the last Congress. With days to go in the session, the bill was tacking desperately toward the finish line of enactment, when it was sunk by senators' parochial concerns.

New York's senators, for instance, slowed the bill down with objections to its controls on the ocean dumping of sewage sludge. Alaska legislators finished it off with their concerns about its effect on paper mills in their state.

Parts of the Clean Water Act expired in 1982, and the bill has struggled along ever since on temporary authorizations. It is perhaps the second piece of environmental legislation in line this year after Superfund.

Sewage-plant subsidies are the big issue here. Currently, the act provides about $2.4 billion annually in US funds for construction of sewage plants -- a sum the House wouldn't mind raising, since such plants are a popular and visible manifestation of federal largess. The administration, on the other hand, has made noises about ending the sewage grant program altogether.

Environmentalists would also like added substantial funds for the control of pollutant-laden runoff from farms, construction sites, and city streets. This ``nonpoint pollution'' is now recognized as a serious problem, an environmental hazard on a par with the ``point pollution'' of factory and sewer discharges. EPA estimates that 30 percent of US lakes and streams are being adversely affected by nonpoint pollution.

Last year, delicate negotiations produced a compromise clean water bill, which passed the House and nearly made it through the Senate. But this year all bets are off.

``This year it's going to be the `Clean Water Lobbyist's Full-Employment Act,' '' jokes Larry Williams, a Sierra Club water expert. ``I do think something will move out of the House, at least.'' SAFE DRINKING WATER ACT

The Safe Drinking Water Act burst out of Congress in 1974, eager to battle pollutants, and quickly fell flat on its face.

The act required that the EPA identify and set standards for dangerous chemicals in drinking water. This is a tough job. Hampered by scientific uncertainty and low budgets, the agency has yet to finish the task.

Thus Congress for some years has been trying to rework the law and prod the EPA into action. A revamped version passed the House last year, but was stopped in the Senate when the administration complained about cost and senators argued over legal language.

Ground-water contamination, a newly recognized and daunting environmental problem, will be one controversial issue when Congress takes up the act this year.

Water locked in underground aquifers provides half of US drinking water. When polluted, its slow-moving nature makes it difficult to cleanse, and scientists are discovering widespread signs of such contamination: EPA reports that 2,800 wells in 20 states contain dangerous levels of chemicals.

Environmentalists want about $50 million in safe-drinking-water funds earmarked for ground-water protection planning. Administration officials have previously said that's too much money too fast; Senate Republicans last year proposed a $15 million demonstration ground-water program.

Another sticking point in revising the Safe Drinking Water Act is how stringent safety standards should be. The House wants tougher standards than the Senate feels are necessary.

This is a controversial area of environmental policy; in general, scientists have yet to determine at what level chemicals become hazardous, or even how they affect human health.

``Realistically, the [Safe Drinking Water] Act won't move immediately,'' sighs Velma Smith, a ground-water expert at the Environmental Policy Institute. ``Maybe we'll get something later this year. We think it's a pretty basic law.'' CLEAN AIR ACT

Acid rain is the biggest obstacle to passage of a new Clean Air Act. Scientists, let alone Congress, can't agree on what should be done to stop acid rain. As long as this impasse persists, the air act will remain mired in committee.

But this is not a new development. For everyone involved -- legislators, environmentalists, and industry lobbyists -- the Clean Air Act is a familiar battlefield. The law expired in 1981 and has been in line for congressional oversight and refurbishing ever since.

The battle here is split along unusual lines. It is not so much Democrat vs. Republican, or administration vs. Congress, as region vs. region.

Take last year, for instance: California Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D), a favorite of environmentalists, attached to the bill a provision mandating quick action against acid rain. The section would have required the installation of expensive smokestack scrubbers at 50 big utilities, with the equipment paid for by a nationwide tax on electric bills. But House members from the Midwest, where many of these big, dirty utilities are located, objected to Mr. Waxman's move and banded together to stop the bill.

The Clean Air Act ``simply cannot pass Congress without an acid rain control provision -- nor, it now seems, with one,'' an Environmental Law Institute article concludes.

Even if the acid rain problem were settled, the air act would face the controversial issue of what to do about atmosphere-borne toxic chemicals, congressional aides note. EPA is supposed to identify and set standards for toxics in the air, but is far behind schedule in doing so. Agency officials admit they're behind, but say the area is scientifically uncharted.

Some members of Congress would like to shove the agency along by including in the Clean Air Act language forcing the regulation of toxics in the air. ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT

The Endangered Species Act is perhaps the last of the big-name environmental bills on Congress's agenda. It expires this year and is thus also open for tinkering.

Back when he took office, former Interior Secretary James G. Watt made noises about cutting the endangered-species budget and opposing some of the act's development-hindering provisions. The Reagan administration in its early years was slow to list new threatened organisms -- and its first listing was a sand-flea-like creature that lives only on the grounds of Washington's National Zoo.

But somewhere along the way Reagan officials apparently learned that appearing as a champion of the endangered was one of the more popular environmental moves they could make.

A recent Interior Department news release is headlined ``1984 Additions Bring US Endangered Species List To 828.'' Among the 46 plants and animals newly listed as threatened are the last-chance townsendia, the large-flowered fiddleneck, and ``the Perdido Key beach mouse, believed to be the nation's most critically endangered small mammal.''

Of the 828 threatened species, only about 300 are actually found in the United States. The total breaks down like this: 297 mammals; 220 birds; 99 reptiles; 85 plants; 62 fishes; 24 clams; 16 amphibians; 12 insects; 9 snails; and 4 crustaceans.

Amos Eno, an endangered-species expert at the National Audubon Society, sees no real roadblocks for the act on its way to reauthorization.

``The only real threat is from Western water interests, who will push to exempt the Colorado and the Platte Rivers from the act. There's lots of endangered fish in the Colorado,'' he says.

Audubon itself will push to eliminate the act's ``raptor clause,'' which allows trade of falcons and other hunting birds bred in captivity. Mr. Eno says recent revelations of massive illegal trading in wild falcons show that this clause is being widely abused. Will Congress act?

In sum, those involved with environmental issues say Superfund stands a good chance of being wrapped up this year. It's a 50-50 proposition that the clean-water and safe drinking-water bills will see final action, they say, and an almost sure thing that the Clean Air Act will get nowhere.

It is hard to judge when the Endangered Species Act will receive serious attention, those involved say.

A number of less major environmental laws have also expired, or will soon do so, and will receive at least some attention: the Toxic Substances Control Act; the Pesticide Control, Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; and the Ocean Dumping Act.

In addition, congressional sources say the issues of ground-water contamination and toxic air pollutants may be broken off from bigger bills and become the subject of separate legislation.

And people on both sides of these environmental battles say they're a little tired of fighting over the same bills year after year after year.

``The way Congress works now, it's a whole lot easier to stop bills,'' says Sharon Newsome, legislative affairs director for the National Wildlife Federation.

But sheer fatigue, she says, will not weaken the environmental community.

``Environmentalists are not going to be satisfied with a weakening of the law,'' she says. ``We want to see [environmental] laws improved.''

Former EPA chief Ruckelshaus complains that Congress seems ``set in cement'' over some environmental bills. In a recent interview he said relations between environmentalists and their opponents must become less polarized before much legislation can move.

``While the uncertainty associated with these laws not being reauthorized persists, you are bound to have some big, really unsolvable management problems in this agency,'' he said.

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