Legal Costs, Budget Cuts Bedevil Superfund

US law created to clean up toxic-waste sites faces reform

Making a mess is relatively easy. Cleaning it up - especially when the mess includes hazardous chemicals - is far more difficult. It involves such knotty technical and legal questions as ''How clean is clean?'' and ''Who should pay the bill?''

This is the essence of the debate over ''Superfund,'' the massive law designed to restore hundreds of dangerously polluted sites around the country. Critics say the law is badly in need of reform. Far too much time and money are spent on lawsuits, they say, with too few resources going toward actual cleanup.

The law is under review in Congress, and it's also the subject of budgetary debates between the Clinton administration and the Republican-led Congress over funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The genesis of Superfund came when buried chemical wastes began bubbling to the surface at Love Canal (near Niagara Falls, N.Y.) in the mid-1970s, forcing the evacuation of some 700 families.

Thinking there were perhaps 400 toxic-waste sites in the US that could be cleaned in about five years, Congress in 1980 passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). It was nicknamed ''Superfund'' for the federal cleanup trust fund financed by taxes on oil and chemical firms and other businesses.

The list of potential Superfund sites grew to nearly 40,000, and the National Priorities List of most-serious sites now is 1,290. There are NPL sites in all 50 states. According to an EPA document, ''approximately 73 million people live within four miles of one or more Superfund sites, and these sites present some of the most complex and diverse health and environmental pollution problems facing Americans.''

The principle behind enforcement of the law is ''the polluter must pay.'' It sounds simple, but it can involve many ''potentially responsible parties'' (to use the legal phrase), including past owners, renters, banks, and insurance companies. Under the law, responsibility also is based on the notion of ''strict, joint and several, and retroactive liability.'' This means that anybody who ever had anything to do with a waste site may be liable for part (maybe even all) of the cleanup cost - which can make for a legal rat's nest.

More than $25 billion in government and private expenditures has been spent on cleanup of Superfund sites. Work has begun at nearly all the 1,290 NPL sites, but over the years just 291 of the most serious sites have been thoroughly cleaned up. It takes 12 years and $30 million to clean up the typical NPL site.

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