For reasons both good and bad, little progress has been made with the country's mounting volume of hazardous industrial waste. However, better federal leadership and increased understanding of the technical, legal and political difficulties now offer promise of swifter action.
This country's affluent standard of living has produced an astounding residue of toxic waste. Despite disposal controls put in place by the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and cleanup efforts authorized by the 1980 Superfund law, some specialists estimate that tens of billions of dollars will be needed to clean up as many as 10,000 existing sites. They are also discovering that land disposal methods may not stop ground-water contamination and may lead to far higher future cleanup costs.
Getting firms to pay for cleaning up wastes they have dumped has also proved to be very difficult. The Environmental Protection Agency has been increasingly successful in using Superfund's strict liability rules to pressure firms into cooperation. But the threat of possibly huge liability has also made manufacturing firms reluctant to cooperate in voluntary cleanup efforts and also made it very difficult for firms involved in legal waste transport and treatment to obtain needed insurance.
Still, there is some good news. EPA reports it has already negotiated private-party settlements worth $400 million. Other big settlements are expected shortly. An innovative private sector effort, Clean Sites Inc., is fostering voluntary cleanup efforts. In this process both agencies are experimenting with mediation and settlement techniques that could prove far more helpful in dealing with toxic damages than the clumsy and expensive mechanisms of tort law.
Most encouraging are efforts by industry, recently reported in The Wall Street Journal, to minimize use of toxic chemicals -- the best long-run solution to the hazardous waste problem. Until the waste-control laws were passed, industry didn't have much incentive to worry about waste generation. And increasing competition from foreign firms not subject to waste-control laws still makes U.S. firms reluctant to invest heavily in new production procoducts.
As Congress works on the Superfund reauthorization, it will be considering ways to ease settlement and insurance problems. It should also pay close attention to those features of the law -- including both financing and liability provisions -- that will strengthen industry's interest in reducing the generation of toxic waste.