The House yesterday approved and sent to the president a $1.6 billion "super fund" bill to finance the clean up of toxic waste dumps and chemical spills.
By a vote of 274 to 94, the House approved a controversial compromise version that had passed the Senate last week. Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), the House sponsor, said the measure was "not perfect" but "a good bill. No one should apologize for it."
Earlier, the House passed and returned to the Senate a measure to establish by 1987 a permanent deep burial site for the nation's growing pile of nuclear waste. The bill was approved on a voice vote.
The super-fund passage was a cliff-hanger down to the last minute, with conservatives complaining that parts of it imposed unpredictable liability for future payments on the federal government. The Republicans chorused that the legislation was too faulty and too important to be approved in a lame-duck rush to judgment.
However, Florio and Rep. Albert Gore, Jr., (D-Tenn.) insisted that the Senate measure provided "very major benefits" and that to defeat it would deny the popular will.
Robert Roland, president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, called the bill "flawed" but "a significant improvement over several earlier versions." He said it would establish "unfortunate precedents, inflationary off-budget financing and an unnecessary new federal bureaucracy."
A controversy over the past three years has concerned the amount of liability for damages to which the chemical industry would be subject and the kind of spills that a super fund would cover. This package covers spills on land or water, both navigable and ground water, but does not cover oil spills.
Owners and operators of waste disposal sites, those who produce hazardous wastes and those who transport it, will be liable under this law for all clean-up costs and for up to $50 million for damage to government-owned natural resources.
However, injured persons will receive no compensation from the fund. They must seek relief in the state courts. Proponents of a stronger super fund this year, including incoming Senate Environment Committee Chairman Robert T. Stafford of Vermont, have promised to seek some compensation for victims next year.
Money for the fund will come from a tax on the chemical industry to provide 87.5 percent of the fund with federal general revenues paying the rest. It will come into existence as soon as President Carter signs the law, beginning at about $100 million in federal money while the tax collection system is set up.
There is also a "post-closure liability fund" which provides $200 million to monitor legal dumps and make sure they cause no damage once they are closed. The law will permit studies of health effects and registration of toxic waste victims by a new "agency for toxic substances and disease registry" within the public health service.
The super fund was a top priority for the Carter administration, which had lobbied heavily for it right up to the last minute yesterday. Carter had boosted a much broader approach in the Senate earlier in the year, but had scaled down his hopes under stiff opposition from chemical manufacturers.
That opposition splintered with the proposal that passed the House yesterday, however, as several major corporations came over to support the fund.
The nuclear waste measure, which was another priority of the Carter administration, still faces a perilous future. It is very different from a version that passed the Senate last July and scant hope remains for an agreement before Congress adjourns. It would require the president to pick a site for permanent storage of high-level nuclear waste by March 30, 1987. The department of Energy would have to outline the essential requirements for the site by June 30, 1981, picking two locations in different formations by Jan. 1, 1982. Another two sites would be chosen for study by Feb. 1, 1985.
The controversy yesterday centered on the role state governments could play in the site selection. An amendment to allow a state veto unless both houses of Congress overrode it was defeated 218 to 161. As passed, the measure puts the burden on the state, requiring that it win majority support from one house of Congress in order to have its protest sustained.
That provision in not unworkably different from the Senate approach. However, the Senate has another major difference that may defeat the measure this year. It provided $300 million for construction of temporary waste storage sites away from nuclear power plants that would hold the accumulating waste while a permanent disposal site is being built.
Environmentalists regarded that as a federal bail-out for the industry and as a foot in the door for eventual construction of facilities to reprocess the waste into more fuel.