Superfund clears way for cleanup of worst hazardous waste sites

Catching the environmental community off-guard, the President dropped his veto threat last Friday and signed the $9 billion Superfund bill, clearing the way for cleanup at the nation's worst hazardous waste sites. Under the Superfund program, the government pays for the cleanup of designated sites and for enforcement efforts to make companies pay when direct responsibility can be shown. The new law requires that the Environmental Protection Agency begin long-term cleanup work on at least 375 sites over the next five years, and provide standards for those cleanups.

The bill also puts in place procedures to encourage negotiated settlements between the EPA and firms responsible for particular sites.

State statutes of limitations are changed under the bill to allow more time for possible victims to learn of health effects and seek remedy in the courts. Health threat assessments would have to be conducted on all 703 of the EPA's national priority sites, and states would develop emergency planning districts in case of dangerous chemical leaks.

Cleanup activities entail removing the hazardous substances from a site where leakage is occuring and moving them to another, presumably safer, land disposal facility. Even the EPA admits, however, that these sites will leak at some point. To help overcome this shifting of wastes, the new bill contains funds for the research and development of new hazardous waste treatment technologies to allow for the permanent destruction of waste products.

It was the level of funding, and the way the funds would be raised, which at first caused the President to say he would veto the bill.

``My overriding concern has been the continuation of our progress to clean up hazardous waste sites that endanger the health and safety of our citizens,'' the President said in a statement released Friday. ``All Americans can expect no less from their government.''

The original Superfund law passed in 1980 was funded at $1.6 billion for five years. Because Congress could not agree on how to revise the law, in September 1985 the money ran out, and the House and Senate have been bickering ever since. The EPA, which administers the program, estimates that cleanup efforts at 375 sites have been delayed.

The House and Senate were strongly divided on how to collect the $9 billion to pay for Superfund. The White House supported a $5.3 billion funding level. The House and the President wanted the tax structure to follow the ``polluter-pays'' principle, whereby those industries generating hazardous wastes pay the bulk of the cleanup costs.

Oil and chemical interests fought hard in the Senate, arguing that a broader-based tax on corporate income would better reflect the fact that hazardous wastes are the by-product of a modern economy. According to EPA data, the chemical, petroleum, and metal-related industries generate 93 percent of hazardous wastes.

In the end, a compromise was reached, combining money from general revenues with a broad-based tax on corporate income and taxes on chemical feedstocks and petroleum. The President agreed to the measure, despite earlier threats to veto the bill, after 48 Senators signed a letter promising that Congress would not use Superfund monies for unrelated programs or increase the tax level.

There are several other possible reasons for the change of heart at the White House. A Presidential veto would almost certainly have been overridden by Congress since the legislation passed by well over the necessary two-thirds majority. Although the White House denied politics played a role, some congressional Republicans were concerned that a Superfund veto could lead to a voter backlash.

Many firms are not happy over the new law. Companies like Maytag, Ford, and Litton do not think they should pay into Superfund since they are responsible for little if any of the materials found in waste sites.

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