Use Superfund Dollars For Cleanup, Not Litigation

Reform should stress practical help, not unreachable ideals

I REPRESENT a district in Washington State that has the dubious distinction of containing more ``Superfund'' sites than any other in the Pacific Northwest.

So I welcome the Clinton administration's proposal to overhaul the Superfund program. After 14 years, it is clear that we are going to have to clean up the Superfund program itself before we can clean up our country's 36,000 contaminated sites.

The centerpiece of the Clinton proposal is the idea that we should concentrate on actually cleaning up sites instead of on endless litigation to fix or escape blame for the original contamination. That is also the idea behind a bill I introduced last year to streamline the process and encourage quicker, more responsible cleanups.

That is also just what the city of Tacoma is trying to do in my district. The city wants to clean up a Superfund site and create a commercial waterfront development on the shores of Puget Sound. Similarly, the port of Tacoma also is working toward a cleanup that will expand its shipping capacity. Those kinds of initiatives are good for the city's financial base, good for local businesses, and certainly good for residents who are tired of living near a Superfund site.

But when the city and the port waded into Superfund's superswamp of red tape, they discovered that the current process is not designed to encourage people who want to clean up a site and develop it. Most of the rules were created to deal with recalcitrant polluters who were unwilling or unable to take responsibility for cleanup. That is why so much money ends up being spent on legal fees. The Superfund rules enforce an adversarial process that is neither appropriate nor relevant for voluntary cleanup. In addition, current cleanup standards strive for an ideal outcome rather than a practical one. Some sites ought to be restored to their original state. But it may be impossible to restore others to their pristine purity. What's more, they may not need to be.

Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency has been responsive to Tacoma's goals. The city and the EPA are working together to negotiate a cleanup plan. EPA administrator Carol Browner recently visited the Tacoma site and called it a model of cleanup that enhances economic development. But we need to change the rules so other cities and businesses that want to undertake similar projects can do so. The administration's proposal and my legislation offer several improvements:

* Streamlining the process for a city, business, or other purchaser that wants to buy, clean up, and develop a site. That means eliminating some of the endless hoops in the current process, so that once an overall cleanup and redevelopment plan is approved, the EPA doesn't have to micromanage each step of implementation. Providing an exemption from liability for bona fide purchasers of contaminated property is a step in the right direction.

* Speeding cleanups by clarifying the regulatory responsibility of states. Also, encouraging states to take responsibility for some Superfund sites.

* Setting remediation standards based on the actual purposes for which a site will be used. That doesn't mean sacrificing public health or safety. Protecting the public is the bottom line. But if that protection is assured, is there really so much difference between a 95 percent or 100 percent level of cleanliness - if the site is going to be used for, say, parking?

That extra five percent might be the difference between whether someone can afford to clean up a site and whether they can't. Including future land use as a consideration in setting cleanup standards, and ensuring a role for the local community in outlining that future land use, is an important part of any Superfund reform.

We have lost a lot of ground (and groundwater too) in the battle to clean up our environment. We have allowed the polluters and their lawyers to distract us from the original purpose of Superfund. There is no question that we must identify those liable for contamination and make them pay for it. But our priority ought to be getting rid of the waste, some of which has been poisoning our soil and water for many decades. Of the more that 1,200 sites of the national priority list, only a fraction have actually been cleaned up. And the remaining sites are not being cleaned quickly or efficiently.

In my district, we have learned that environmental protection and economic development can complement each other, rather than conflict as they have for many years. The Clinton administration has given us a chance to reform Superfund so we can promote similar initiatives across the country. The alternative is to let the lawyers keep fiddling while toxic fires burn.

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