According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, to reform is "to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses." The nearly 20-year-old Superfund program, bloated by litigation and inefficient bureaucracy, is in dire need of reform.
Superfund is a statute with fundamental flaws. Its liability scheme has created 20 years of litigation that has been harmful to people, particularly small businesses, and delayed cleanup of toxic waste sites. Superfund also has created barriers and disincentives to voluntary cleanups, state cleanups and community redevelopment. The program's unrealistic requirements not only create unnecessary burdens and waste for sites on the National Priorities List, but also for other cleanups across the country. States and cleanup contractors have made these points clear to Congress.
This is a program that takes eight years to accomplish the identification and listing of a hazardous waste site and another 10 years to select a remedy. While the administration and some of my colleagues call this a satisfactory pace and vindication of the "polluter pays" principle, I see waves of litigation and counterproductive federal rules.
EPA Administrator Carol Browner appears to agree that the overly litigious program needs reform. "The Superfund liability system needs to be reformed to reduce the burden on small businesses and to ensure that more money goes to cleanup not lawyers," she has said.
Even President Clinton has admitted, "Superfund has been a disaster. All the money goes to lawyers, and none of the money goes to clean up the problem it was designed to clean up."
The National Conference of Black Mayors has stated, "Far too much money is being spent on lawyers and not nearly enough on cleanup . . . tens of thousands of abandoned properties in urban areas lie contaminated and unproductive because developers and local businesses fear getting pulled into Superfund's far-reaching liability system."
Indeed, litigation delays cleanup. The General Accounting Office (GAO) reports that "the time required to complete cleanups increased form 2.4 years in 1986 to 10.6 years in 1996."
Barbara Williams, a restaurant owner, on behalf of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said, "What is the Superfund law accomplishing? The attorneys are making a fortune, small businesses are unfairly burdened and the contamination still isn't cleaned up."
While the administration claims that this program is "faster, fairer and more efficient than ever," I see a law that hinders voluntary cleanup programs and redevelopment through the pervasive fear of federal liability.
After more than 19 years, Superfund far too often has failed in its central mission to get toxic waste sites cleaned up. The GAO has found that out of the $1.5 billion the federal government pumps into Superfund each year, less than half of that goes to clean up toxic waste sites. Instead, most funds appear to be spent on "support" and other bureaucratic expenses. Given those figures, it's not surprising that during the life of the Superfund program, fewer than 200 sites have been completely cleaned up -- and that cleanup came at a cost of $17 billion. More than 1,200 sites still remain to be fully cleaned up.
This trend is unacceptable. When toxic waste sites stay abandoned because of Superfund's vagaries, people suffer, neighborhoods suffer, cities and towns suffer. Superfund's failures can be found in every state. Millions of Americans live near contaminated properties -- unused and unsalable sites that have been on cleanup lists for years -- and wonder when they will be returned to productive use.
In 1980 Congress passed a well-intentioned Superfund law, and several aspects of the law work. Toxic waste sites are being cleaned up. But the statute is excessively litigious, slow and unrealistic, and it poses barriers to cleanups across the nation. State cleanup agencies, cleanup engineers, dozens of experts and Republicans and Democrats alike agree on the need for substantial reform. Governors and mayors are urging us to fix this statute. Congress is not poised to undermine the successes in the Superfund law. Rather, its members stand ready to address the problems of an inefficient and excessively litigious law. We must act now.
The writer, a Republican who represents Virginia's 7th District, is chairman of the House Commerce Committee.