The Carter administration is preparing legislation that would require oil and chemical producers to pay a total of as much as $600 million annually into an emergency fund for cleaning up hazardous waste dumps and oil spills, federal officials said yesterday.
The move reflects growing concern at the federal level over continuing reports of dump sites containing chemicals and other hazardous substances that are causing health and environmental problems.
Federal officials under fire from members of Congress for moving too slowly are also planning a crash enforcement program scheduled to be announced today. Up to 300 investigations and 50 prosecutions of waste site operators and contributors are envisioned annually, officials said.
In a speech scheduled for delivery in Denver today, Barbara Blum, deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is to tell a joint EPA-Justice Department task force working on the hazardous waste problem that 17 sites are now being investigated by EPA for possible prosecution.
Other EPA officials said these include several sites in upstate New York - in addition to the much publicized Love Canal chemical dump-and sites in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Federal officials estimate that between 1,200 and 2,000 dump sites around the country may contain hazardous waste that could develop into a public health hazard. The cost of cleanup has been estimated in the billions.
Blum said EPA is awarding a $4 million grant to New York State to help clean up the Love Canal site. The money will be matched by the state to complete construction of a drainage system at the Niagara Falls site, where 239 families have been evacuated because of seepage from a chemical waste dump.
Fedearl sources said that the administration's legislation, which is before the Office of Management and Budget for review, would require chemical and oil producers to pay a fee on either production facilities or final products. The money would be used for emergency relief in the event of dangerous waste dumps or oil spills.
This legislation is the second part of the administration's "superfund" proposal, which was originally designated - only for oil spills. The first portion of the legislation was submitted to Congress in March.
According to the sources, this second portion, planned for introduction in May, was expanded to cover chemical and hazardous waste dump cleanups because administration concern about these sites now outweights fear over potential oil spill damage.
The emergency fund would take in between $300 million and $600 million in fees annually from chemical and oil producers. Officials at OMB are deliberating whether there will also be a federal contribution.
In the case of hazardous waste dumps, the money would go to pay for emergency relief such as cleanup and containment costs, according to federal officials, who asked not to be named. The fund would be used both for working dump sites and those that have been closed but are still leaking hazardous substances, the officials said.
Companies responsible for dump sites would still be liable for cleanup costs through federal lawsuits. Only seven such suits have been filed up to now, according to EPA records scheduled for release today.
Last November, EPA said 102 hazardous waste dump sites around the nation posed "current threats" to the health of persons living nearby. The agency's latest records indicate that about half these sites are no longer considered immediate hazards, but it has added 32 new ones to the "current threats" list.
According to Blum, EPA will divert at least 50 staff members from regional offices and headquarters to augment the 22 investigators and attorneys now working on hazardous wastes. In addition, Blum said the agency plans to seek a supplemental budget appropriation of $131 million for 190 new people.
She estimated that the expanded enforcement would mean about 300 hazardous waste site investigations annually by EPA and that the investigations would lead to as many as 50 new cases for Justice Department prosecution.
Despite the crackdown on hazardous waste contributors and dump site operators, many officials now concede that it is virtually impossible in a large number of cases to fix the legal blame or financial responsibility. Many of the original operators are out of business or say they operated chemical and hazardous waste sites under the rules prevailing at the time.
Blum said that federal environmental and legal officials now believe that up to 75 percent of all hazardous waste sites needing some type of remedial effort will have to be cleaned up at public expense.
"'Gypsy hauling' and 'midnight dumping' practices, we believe, are widespread," she said. For example, 80,000 gallons of waste oil in Hawaii "just disappear" every month.