The Senate last night passed and sent to the House a $1.6 billion "superfund" bill to finance the cleanup of chemical dumps and spilled toxic wastes. The critical vote was 78 to 9.
Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), who engineered the compromise, called it "the major preventive health bill to come before the Congress in the last four years." Describing himself as a realist, Stafford noted that this version provided only 25 percent of the coverage he and other Environment and Public Works Committee members had wanted, but said industry opposition to that approach had left him no alternative if any bill were to pass before Congress adjourns.
The Senate bill provides broader damage coverage than a $1.2 billion House-passed version, but aides to Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), who fathered that measure, said he would have no problem with most of the Senate alternative. Some version of the long-delayed bill could thus be on President Carter's desk within a week.
The idea behind the superfund is to protect the public from the effects of abandoned toxic waste dumps like New York's Love Canal and to clean up spills that occur at the rate of 3,000 every year, Stafford told the Senate. Taxes on the chemical industry would provide 87.5 percent of the fund and the government would pay the rest.
Controversy over the past three years has centered on the degree to which the chemical industry would be liable for damages and the kinds of spills that would be covered. Stafford's bill, cosponsored by the minority and majority leaders, covers spills on land or water and into ground water but does not cover job-related problems.
The Senate measure also leaves out oil spills, which are covered in a separate $375 million House bill. Last-minute wrangling over this issue almost sank the fund yesterday, but contending senators agreed to let it ride until next year.
The liability question sparked the most debate. Those who own or operate waste disposal sites, produce wastes or transport them are liable under the Senate bill for all cleanup costs and for up to $50 million for each incident of damage to government-owned natural resources. But injured persons receive no compensation whatever and must seek it in the state courts.
"This Senate has made the judgment that property is more significant than human beings", said Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), "and none of us should delude ourselves or the people of this country that we have done anything more honorable."
The original $4.1 billion Senate bill that Stafford preferred had provided that citizens could sue in federal courts to recover damages, that the fund would pay their out-of-pocket medical expenses, and that all companies contributing to a hazardous dump or spill would be equally liable for damages from it. The measure as passed includes none of those provisions.
Mitchell promised he would seek to restore them next year, calling their deletion "a faliure of will" by the Senate.
Yesterday's measure does include some ambiguities that would allow the president to provide some aid to individuals.It permits studies of health effects, some health testing and registration of victims, all to be done by a new "agency for toxic substances and disease registry" within the Public Health Service. With 10 percent state participation, it permits relocation funding and other undefined remedial action.
There is also a separate $200 million fund, financed by a tax on wastes taken to dump sites, to make sure legal dumps cause no damage once they are closed.
Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee called the bill "a leadership initiative, a compromise that all of us can live with."
Environment Committee Chairman Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.) said the Senate could expect to deal with the measure again next year. "Much more needs to be done," he said.
Compromise became easier this year when cracks appeared in the previously united front of opposition from the chemical industry. The Chemical Manufacturers Association had opposed Florio's $1.2 billion measure, on grounds it was too broad and too expensive. But first E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., the nation's largest chemical producer, and then Union Carbide and finally the Atlantic Richfield Co. announced support of it.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) led opposition to the bill in off-the-floor Senate negotiations, threatening to filibuster the original strong version of the measure until a compromise was finally reached. He was one of the nine opponents in the final vote. All Maryland and Virginia senators voted to approve the bill.