AMONG THE mass of unfinished business the Senate leaves behind as it adjourns for the election recess is one bill that should not be left hanging for another year or two. Known as Superfund, this measure would create a fund, raised largely from a tax on the chemical and petrochemical industries, that would pay for emergency government action to clean up spills of oil, wastes and hazardous chemicals. The government would then recover the costs from the responsible company. Superfund would also pay for the cleanup of "orphan" waste sites where the responsible company has gone out of business or cannot be identified. In a nutshell, its purpose is to get dangerous spills and waste dumps promptly cleaned up before the years of legal haggling that are usually needed to determine exactly who is responsible for the damage that has been done.

With new chemical waste sites being discovered at the rate of about 200 a month, and oil and chemical spills numbering in the neighborhood of 15,000 a year, there is little doubt that a revolving cleanup fund of this type is needed. But the fund's exact provisions -- how much money is required, how it should be raised and how far company liability for damages should extend -- have proved terribly controversial, generating numerous competing versions of the legislation. Adding to Superfund's problems is the determined opposition of the chemical industry, which adroitly exploited opportunities to delay action until the imminent end of the session made final passage seem impossible.

Despite all this, Superfund recently passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support and none of the expected controversy. However, the measure is now stalled in the Senate, in the Finance Committee to be precise. So far, Finance Chairman Russell Long and his committee have refused to indicate what changes they would like to see in the existing Senate bill, or even to agree to act in time to allow final action on the bill during the post-election lame duck session. Sen. Dole and others have further hurt the bill's chances by threatening to use Superfund as the vehicle for the controversial tax cut should it be taken up on the Senate floor. These senators and others regularly proclaim their support for some kind of Superfund bill. But after months of delay their actions -- or failure to act -- tell the real story.

Given a choice, it would be far preferable not to have final decisions reached on such an important bill as this by a lame duck Congress. But after all, the work and contention of the past two years, including hearings by a half-dozen committees, it would be a terrible waste to let the bill die now. It would also be risky: Superfund would enable the government to take emergency measures to protect public health and safety that cannot be taken without it. The Finance Committee owes it to the rest of Congress -- and to the public -- to let Superfund be voted on by the full Senate before the end of this year.