CONGRESS IS finally being driven by the calendar to take some action on the expiring Superfund program to clean up buried toxic wastes. The deadline is Sept. 30; that is when the existing five-year-old authority expires. The House Energy and Commerce Committee produced its usual entertaining swordplay and great showers of sparks just before Congress went on its summer vacation. It reported out a Superfund bill 31 to 10. The losing 10, all Democrats, denounced the bill as a cowardly retreat; the winning 31 hailed it as a statesmanlike advance. The subject is technical, the rhetoric was overblown, and it is hard to know whom to believe.
The Superfund was created in 1980. It was Congress' response to Love Canal. It is one of a number of broad regulatory efforts that Congress has ordered up in recent years to combat chemical poisoning. Most were enacted with a much greater sense of urgency than an appreciation of the technical difficulties involved. In the case of the Superfund, there is still not agreement even on where and how many are the dumps that need to be dealt with. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 2,000 dumps across the country will be found so dangerous they will need to be cleaned up. The General Accounting Office estimates 4,000; Congress' Office of Technology Assessment, 10,000. There is no agreement, either, on how to approach them. Should the agency do a little work on a lot of sites or a lot of work on a few? How much should it seek to clean up any one site; how clean is clean? Can wastes be chemically neutralized? Burned? It is not always known what is in a dump. Can leaking dumps be walled off? Or should wastes be removed, and then where? Is this not just a transfer of risk? What guarantees can there be that new dumps won't someday leak like old? Well-disposed experts disagree on all these issues. They are beyond Congress' attention span and competence. There are equally sharp disputes over the equity issues involved: who should be liable, who should pay? There is also a heavy overlay of political distrust that clouds these problems. The Superfund program was at the center of the fight over politicization of EPA in the first Reagan term.
The fight last month in Energy and Commerce was basically over how much to trust and how much to instruct EPA. Environmental groups and the losing Democrats favored a bill like one the House passed last year (it died in the Senate). They would force EPA to start work on a certain number of sites each year (serious work has started on only about 300 so far), and spell out cleanliness standards. The majority gave the agency more room to maneuver.
The bill must now go to three other House committees. The Senate also has yet to act; a bill has been awaiting debate there since mid-June. There is talk of a simple extension of current law if Congress cannot act by the expiration date. Some would make it a year's extension, so that the issue would come up in an election year. That kind of deferral of decision has become almost a way of life in Congress in recent years. It is a weak way to govern. The bills in both houses would greatly expand the Superfund, from the $1.6 billion of the last five years to either $7.5 billion (Senate) or $10 billion (House) the next five. That expansion should not be postponed. And the bill that came out of Energy and Commerce seems to us good enough. There is a limit to how much Congress can usefully force EPA's hand in this complex field.