AFTER MORE THAN three years of work, the fate of Superfund legislation -- creating an emergency response mechanism to deal with hazardous chemical and oil spills and abandoned waste dumps like Love Canal -- hinges on what will happen in the next few days.
The chemical industry is betting that it can keep the puressure on members of the Senate Finance Committee, which has bottled up the bill since last spring, while shifting the blame for lack of action onto those who want an effective bill. Tactically, the strategy may work. There is little time available to work out a compromise and many opportunities to divide, confuse and conquer the Democratic lame ducks and the various Republican factions vying for power.
But in the long run the strategy will prove shortsighted. The chemical industry badly needs to recapture public trust in its ability to handle its wastes safely, including guaranteed prompt clean-up and just compensation to those who are the victims of accidents, negligence, mistakes and purposeful wrongdoing. Right now that trust is just about nil: witness the nationwide resistance to the siting of badly needed new waste sites. Though a tough Superfund would do a lot to restore public confidence, the industry is still hoping to prevent the passage of any bill or, failing that, to ensure that whatever passes is more loophole than law.
The House acted on Superfund last summer, passing two bills than even taken together leave glaring holes in the needed protections. The House's legislation does not cover discharges into rivers or the ground, contamination of ground water or accidents like the train derailment that forced the evacuation of a quarter of a million Canadians last summer. The bills provide little if any legal protection to victims and severely limit companies' liability for damages. Last spring the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee reached agreement on a bill that has none of these deficiencies, but the Finance Committee prevented it from reaching the floor.
Now Sen. Robert T. Stafford, soon to become chairman of the environment committee, is trying to call the industry's bluff. He has introduced a compromise bill that provides coverage for all types of spills and discharges, but on all other controversial issues removes just about everything that industry has objected to: it slashes the size of the fund from $4 billion to $2.7 billion, removes all victim compensation provisions except out-of-pocket medical expenses and strictly limits the liability provisions.
Sen. Stafford's bill is -- just barely -- an acceptable compromise. It meets all of the chemical industry's legitimate concerns and some of its not-so-legitimate desires as well. Once past the Senate, it should provide a vehicle for a quick agreement with the House. All that remains now is for responsible members of the Finance Committee -- Republican and Democratic -- to proceed with a bill that should no longer be considered controversial.