An article in Friday's early editions incorrectly identified the author of an unsuccessful legislative proposal to give citizens the right to sue the government for toxic-dump cleanups under Superfund. The amendment was offered by Rep. William B. Richardson (D-N.M.).
The House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday approved a $10 billion extension of the "Superfund" toxic waste law, adding new deadlines for cleanups and granting several major concessions to industries concerned about their liability for toxic waste dumps.
But the bill, approved 31 to 10 after an emotional speech by its author, Rep. Dennis E. Eckart (D-Ohio), failed to win the support of five of the panel's six subcommittee chairmen and appears destined for another bitter battle on the House floor.
"I oppose this bill with great reluctance, but a firm conviction that I must vote against it," said Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), author of the current Superfund law. "The cleanup standards in this bill can only be described as a blank check" for the Environmental Protection Agency "to do whatever it pleases."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) called the five-year extension legislation "a poor bill and a disservice to the people who think Superfund will protect them . . . . I think this bill is insufficient to protect the public health."
But Eckart, in an unusual speech aimed at defending both his bill and his credentials as an ally of strong environmental legislation, accused his critics of "character assassination."
"I want my colleagues to know that they can go ahead and cast a protest vote," he said. "My vote will go for progress."
Eckart also dismissed environmentalists' criticism of his bill as the work of a "few shrill extremists" and said the committee had adopted more than half of the amendments backed by environmental groups.
Two amendments they considered critical were defeated yesterday when the panel refused to open the federal courts to citizens seeking cleanup of toxic waste dumps and defeated an amendment that would have required chemical companies to report the release of hazardous substances into the environment.
But the panel approved another amendment, supported by Eckart as well as environmentalists, that would prevent the federal government from preempting state and community right-to-know laws. As originally drafted, the bill would have substituted federal rules on how much information about toxic substances a company must share.
Earlier, the committee approved, 30 to 12, what opponents called a major bailout for oil companies whose leaking storage tanks pollute ground water.
Supporters said the action is intended to protect owners of service stations and other small businesses from financial catastrophe in the event their storage tanks spring a leak. But environmental lobbyists, who dubbed the amendment "the Exxon bailout," said it also would apply to large tank farms of the sort operated by major refiners.
The committee rejected, 27 to 15, an amendment that would have limited the EPA's ability to release polluters from future liability for dump sites cleaned up under Superfund. The bill's authors said liability releases are needed to force companies responsible for toxic dumps "out of the weeds" and get them to sign cleanup agreements.
But Waxman warned that the releases would encourage "sweetheart deals" and inadequate cleanups at the expense of citizens who would be left with no recourse if the site turned out to contain unforeseen hazards.
Waxman reminded the panel that it was a similar liability release at a dump site in Seymour, Ind., that sparked a congressional inquiry into Superfund management two years ago. "You're asking for future scandals just like that," he said. "This is one of the best deals the industry could get."
Congress is under a tight deadline for renewal of Superfund, which will be left essentially penniless Oct. 1 unless lawmakers extend the law and the special taxing provisions that finance it.
The bill's progress through the House has been slow and painful.