President Carter, responding to growing concern about the health dangers posed by toxic chemicals, asked Congress yesterday to establish a $1.6 billion fund to clean up hazardous waste dumps and the effects of oil and chemical spills.
In a letter to Congress seeking support for the proposal, the president cited the dumping of tons of toxic chemicals into waste sites in the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls, N.Y., calling the incident a "tragedy" that "clearly demonstrates the unacceptable costs of improper hazardous waste disposal."
The Love Canal case provided the White House with a dramatic example to use in pushing what Stuart E. Eizenstat, Carter's chief domestic policy adviser, yesterday called "the most important environmental legislation" to be proposed by the administration this year.
The heart of the legislation would be a system of fees on oil refiners and chemical manufacturers. Administration officials estimated that the fees would produce 80 percent of the fund, with the remainder coming from federal appropriations of up to $100 million a year.
The fees are likely to be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, administration officials said.
The total of $1.6 billion would be reached over four years, after which the size of the fund and the fee schedule could be changed in an extension of the legislation.
Douglas M. Costle, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who outlined the proposal to reporters at the White House yesterday, said there is concern on Capitol Hill about the threat of hazardous wastes, adding that the administration is "relatively close" to having enough support to enact such a measure. He said hearings on the bill will begin next week in the House and on June 20 in the Senate.
Despite that official optimism, the proposed fee schedule is expected to encounter heavy opposition from industry, leaving the ultimate fate of the legislation much in doubt. As late as last week, the administration was considering proposing a totally government-paid hazardous waste fund because of industry opposition to the fees.
Industry's immediate reaction yesterday was negative. Robert A. Roland, president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, called the measure "defective" and charged that the fee proposal would impose on the chemical and related industries a "disproportionate burden of clean-up costs."
Roland argued that all of American society is responsible for the hazardous waste problem, and that all segments of society should pay to solve it.
In addition to the legislation, Costle announced that the administration will ask Congress for an additional $45 million and 70 new positions in the EPA budget for the next fiscal year, and an additional $1.2 million and 30 new positions in the Justice Department.
The extra money and jobs would be used to buttress clean-up efforts and enforcement measures under existing law, Costle said.
EPA officials said there are thousands of abandoned hazardous waste sites in the country, including some 1,200 known to pose "severe" public health dangers.
The legislation proposed yesterday would empower the government to move immediately to clean up oil and chemical spills and to compensate victims of such accidents. Later, the government could seek to recover the costs from those responsible.
In the case of hazardous waste dumps, the measures authorizes up to $300,000 in emergency government assistance and provides a formula under which the federal government would share with the states the cost of containing the spread of hazardous wastes from the dump sites.
Costle conceded that the administration expects industry to pass on the cost of the fees to consumers. But he said both industry and consumers "have financially benefited from cheap and unsafe disposal practices in the past and, therefore, both should share in the paying for the remedies we now propose."
A coalition of environmental groups yesterday called the legislation "a welcome first step" in dealing with the hazardous waste problem, but criticized the proposal for inadequate funding and for including limits on the amounts of fees industry would be required to pay.