The Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that the government bring in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to run the physical work of cleaning up the nation's toxic waste dumps, EPA administrator Anne M. Gorsuch said yesterday.
Gorsuch told the House energy subcommittee on commerce that having the Corps oversee the design, engineering and construction of dump controls would be faster and more economical than doing it all through private companies under contract. She said that under her recommendation the Corps would let "a substantial share" of the actual construction work to private bidders.
Subcommittee chairman Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) called the ide "a radical departure" from the design of the so-called Superfund, a $1.6 billion account Congress approved last year to finance the cleanup of abandoned sites through assessments on chemical companies. He said he was suspicious that the shift would only delay Superfund implementation while the Corps learned how to encapsulate spilled wastes.
"It is important that Congress review this," he said.
Corps spokesman Warren Papin said in an interview that the unit would need additional funds and personnel to do the job, which involves thousands of sites scattered nationwide, but that the expertise was already available. "If we're given the task, we'll accomplish it," he said.
Senior Corps officials are known to be reluctant to take on the job without a firm commitment for more money and manpower. Such allocations would have to be approved by Congress.
EPA received $68 million to get started with Superfund this year, but Florio, who sponsored the legislation, called yesterday's hearing to complain about EPA's slow pace. Gorsuch, who took office May 20, told him that Superfund will begin its efforts by spending $3 million to clean up the old Pollution Abatement Services Co. site at Oswego, N.Y.
That abandoned high-temperature waste disposal business closed in 1977, leaving 14,000 leaking drums of chemicals, five 20,000-gallon tanks full of them and a large lagoon, EPA officials said later.
However, Gorsuch said, it would be at least another year until overall standards for Superfund's operation get final approval in the form of a National Contingency Plan.
Addressing several controversial issues, Gorsuch also said:
That liability for complex dumpsites involving spills by many companies would be assessed against all of them jointly and severally, as common law provides. The chemical industry had argued against that interpretation.
That EPA will take no position in a pending New Jersey lawsuit over the extent to which Superfund preempts the right of states to set up their own waste cleanup funds. The industry does not want to contribute to 50 separate funds.
EPA will require companies responsible for dumpikng to clean up their sites.