Congress and the chemical industry are gearing up for a major political battle this year over who will pay the multibillion-dollar bill for cleaning up 30 years' worth of hazardous wastes.
With about 30,000 sites full of dangerous goo dotting the countryside according to the Environmental Protection Agency, few congressmen will be able to say it is not a local problem.
But all the proposals face powerful opposition from the chemical inudstry, for they would assess chemical producers to pay some of the cleanup costs. At issue are constitutional questions, billions of dollars, and the possible founding of a whole new fee-taking bureaucracy.
So great is the problem of hazardous substances that the legislative efforts to deal with it have come to be called "superfund" bills. The Carter administration version, considered the most comprehensive, would set up a $1.6 billion superfund over four years, and that would pay for cleaning up the 400 or 500 worst sites, according to EPA Deputy Administrator Barbara Blum. Nationwide cleanup could cost $50 billion, she said.
The federal purse would contribute 25 percent of the total, but Chemical Manufacturers' Association president Robert Roland said that is not enough. "There is no need for a superfund bill," he said. "If all society has benefited from the jobs and the products of the chemical industry, then the risks should also be spread across the whole society."
The industry is arguing that a fund is needed only to pay for the cleanup of orphan sites, those for which the responsible corporation either cannot be determined or is bankrupt. Such a fund should come out of general tax revenues, Roland said, and court action should decide who pays for all other cleanups. Any other solution, he said, raises constitutional issues.
"Some of these proposals have some very kinky concepts," he said. "They're trying to assess a specific segment of the industry for what they consider to be wrongdoing in the past, somebody else's wrongdoing. The constitutionality of that is very doubtful.'"
EPA and the Justice Department recently filed a $134 million lawsuit against Hooker Chemical Co. of Houston, Tex., in connection with more than 94,000 tons of chemical waste it dumped at Love Canal and other sites in and around Niagara Falls, N.Y. EPA has pledged to file at least 50 more suits this year in connection with other abandoned waste sites.
But the responsibility for dumps is not always clear-cut, because often the chemical producer subcontracts disposal. The ultimate dump sites -- acres of smoldering iron drums -- contain no one knows what. Lawsuits may take years and meanwhile the public safety is at stake.
Several pending bills would try to deal individually with different types of problems: oil spills, abandoned sites, spills of useful chemicals like chlorine or acid, and dumping of useless dangerous wastes. But many cases are almost impossible to classify.
At Pittston, Pa., the first report of trouble was an oil slick on the streams. Investigators soon discovered toxic chemcials, which indicated a spill of some kind. But then it was found that wastes had been dumped into abandoned mine shafts, where sewage leaks and the chemicals were combining to form cyanide gas.
"We feel that there are any number of such complex problems and to have more than one authority dealing with them would only complicate matters," said Mark Tipermas of EPA.
EPA's Blum estimated that there may be 1,200 to 3,000 orphan dump sites for which no responsibility can be assigned and which do not come under the Clean Water Act provisions for cleaning up navigable waters. "Somebody is going to be stuck with the bill," she said. "We operate on the polluter-pays principle."
Given the surly taxpayer mood and an election year, Congress is not likely to grab the check. The main Senate alternative to the administration bill, in fact, offered by Sens. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) and John Culver (D-Iowa), would eliminate any federal contribution from the superfund.
"We take the view that the environment doesn't care how [a chemical] got there. If you've got it, you use it and it gets released and causes harm, you're liable," said Carl Braithwaite of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee which is handling the legislation.
The Muskie-Culver bill would collect fees from "active generators" of hazardous substances, a system that could require payments from 290,000 sources. A new bureacracy to run the fund would clearly be necessary.
The administration bill would assess only "feedstock sources" -- those that import, refine, and export petroleum, supply petrochemical feed stocks, and produce inorganic chemicals and compounds like ammonia and arsenic.
That would require payment from perhaps 1,000 sources, and the costs would be passed along to all those who benefit from chemical products, Blum argued. Dangerous dumps and spills could be cleaned up immediately, reimbursing the fund after court action established responsibility where possible, she said.
Chances of passage this year are "50-50, maybe a little better," Blum added. "We're optimistic that Love Canal has made people realize that something needs to be done, and the quicker it is, the more people can be protected."