TIME IS running out on one of the more important pieces of legislation before Congress this year. The legislation would create a fund -- nicknamed Superfund -- for dealing with emergencies caused by spills and leaks of oil and hazardous chemcials. Though no one publicly disputes the need for such a fund, it is being delayed to death by a massive lobbying campaign waged by the oil and chemcial industries.

The idea behind Superfund is to have a sufficient amount of money on hand for the government to be able to move immediately to contain and clean up a hazardous spill if the responsible party either cannot be identified or is not equipped to deal with the emergency. After the danger to public health and the environment is removed, the responsible parties will be identified (this can sometimes take years) and held liable for whatever the government spent on the cleanup. Only when no owner can be traced -- as, for example, in the case of some abandoned waste dumps -- will the fund not be reimbursed.

After Love Canal and Valley of the Drums and the Campeche oil spill and dozens of other incidents, nearly everyone is aware that such a fund is needed. Each year there are an average of 11,000 ol spills, other hazardous substances are voluntarily reported to the Environmental Protection Agency; but now that reporting is mandatory, EPA expects a "dramatic increase" in that number. As for chemical waste sites, one year ago EPA estimated that there are between 1,200 and 2,000 dumps that pose significant environmental or health hazards, and new sites have been turning up at a steady rate of about 200 a month.

Superfund would do more than create a pot of money large enough to meet emergencies. By establishing strict standards of liability, the new legislation would encourage companies to take greater care that accidents and careless handling do not happen in the first place. The law would also enable those whose health or livelihood is harmed by chemical spills to recover damages in court.

Although Superfund would fill a need, and although it would not create a new bureaucracy or broad new regulatory burdens, its passage is in serious doubt. Enactment has been frustrated by splintered congressional jurisdictions -- three or more different committees on each side of the Capitol -- and by a determined lobbying campaign against any but the weakest versions of the bill. With so many different committees in the act, there are almost endless opportunities to kill the legislation through inaction without anyone's having to come out and vote against it, and this is precisely the chemical and oil lobbyists' strategy.

The present arena is the Senate Finance Committee, which finally held hearings last week after two months of delay. Senators outdid each other in extolling the importance of the bill but then solemnly noted the complexity and momentousness of its precise administrative details and funding mechanisms. These matters can be worked out on the floor and in House-Senate conference, however: the committee's job is to take prompt enough action so that final passage is possible in the remaining few days of the session. If this committee and other key members of the leadership continue to vacillate, no amount of rhetoric will hide the fact that the Senate let the chemical industry pressure it into running out the clock on a bill that would serve everyone's best interest.