The House last night passed and sent to the Senate a bill setting up a $1.2 billion "superfund" to finance the cleanup of hazardous waste dump sites.
The measure, which had the reluctant support of the chemical industry, passed, 351 to 23. Sponsoring Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) said the overwhelming vote "indicates a mandate from the people" for action on the nationwide problem of abandoned toxic chemical wastes.
A $4 billion version of the superfund, containing much broader liability provisions, is bogged down in jurisdictional squabbles in the Senate, where the environment committee approved it in June. Supporters said they thought the House action might generate enough momentum to pry it loose.
"No one wants to be responsible for stopping this legislation," Florio said.
The House package would assess the chemical industry for each pound or barrel of raw material it processes to provide 75 percent of the superfund over the next five years, while the federal government would provide 25 percent. Costs of cleaning up an abandoned dump site or one with untraceable owners would be paid by the fund, although victims of the wastes would not be compensated as they would be in the Senate version.
A companion measure setting up two $375 million funds to handle chemical and oil spills into waterways passed the House on Friday.
Florio estimated that cleanup of the 397 abandoned dumps so far evaluated could cost an average of $3 million each Taking care of the Love Canal site in New York may cost $150 million, he said."It is appropriate that the industries that have benefited the most from cheap disposal methods should contribute the most to the cleanup," he told the House during debate last week.
The measure would set up an information-gathering system requiring all owners of waste disposal sites to notify the states, which would make up priority action lists and forward them to the superfund administrators at the Environmental Protection Agency to rank for federal action.
EPA Deputy Administrator Barbara Blum saying she was "very pleased" with the House action, noted that 7,000 sites are new under EPA investigation.
Waste generators would be strictly liable for cleanup of their toxics, and all generators who contributed to a particular site would be liable for all cleanup there unless a court found reason to apportion damages.
The liability provisions are controversial and are expected to be a major point of conflict with the Senate. As approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the superfund allows citizens to sue local dumpers in the federal courts for personal damages and economic loss, medical expenses and injury to natural resources.
An amendment that would have added federal court action to the House bill was planned by Rep. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), but was not offered, one of the compromises with the bill's critics that led to smooth action yesterday. Environmentalists said they would fight to make sure that provision winds up in any final measure.
"We're concerned that the industry is regarding this as a compromise version and we don't see it that way," said Blake Early of the Sierra Club. v
The Chemical Manufacturers Association began the year opposed to any kind of cleanup fund but gradually shifted its efforts so as to limit the scope of an idea whose time seemed to have come. The association never argued that the money would in any way endanger its business, only that the fund seemed to require the innocent to pay for the sins of the guilty.
But the House firmly rejected a substitute amendment by Rep. Dave Stockman (R-Mich.) that would have left the waste problem in the hands of the states and provided federal but no industry funds for cleanup.