Superfund, the two-decade-old program for cleaning up badly polluted industrial sites, is at a crossroads.
After a significant increase in Superfund cleanups during the Clinton years, the Bush administration has decided to focus on the dirtiest, most complex sites in the face of tight budgets and the imminent depletion of the program's trust fund.
That fund, which gave the program its name, is likely to run out by 2004. The special corporate taxes that built it up expired in 1995. Congress has resisted efforts to revive them, and the administration opposes their renewal.
The money in the fund has been used to pay for cleanups when the original polluters of a toxic site are hard to identify or unable to pay.
The Bush approach to the Superfund has been to emphasize the need for liability reforms, so that current site owners are not unfairly saddled with cleanup costs. Such adjustments in the law are needed, and would build on regulatory reforms in recent years that have already reduced some liability tie-ups.
But the Bush administration still faces the immediate question of sustaining a federal outlay of about $1 billion a year for Superfund cleanups after the trust fund is gone. For now, it plans to take on fewer sites, concentrating on the most polluted ones.
That may be a fiscal necessity. It's also a necessity, however, to keep this vital environmental program going. Hundreds of toxic sites are still out there. Taxpayers will need to foot more of the bill to continue the cleanups.