THE ENVIRONMENTAL Protection Agency has already slowed work on dozens of toxic dump cleanups in order to conserve the rapidly dwindling Superfund. Meanwhile, Congress has been avoiding action on the tough issues involved in renewing the fund. For the Senate, the day of reckoning is expected to come early this week when votes are taken on several key amendments.
As Sen. David Durenberger warned recently, Congress' worst instincts can easily convert Superfund from a program designed to deal with real toxic hazards -- wherever they occur -- into a pork- barrel grant program under which every state and locality claims a perpetual entitlement. Several features of the current Senate bill move in that dangerous direction.
One would create a new manufacturers excise tax -- from which its author Finance Committee Chairman Robert Packwood has thoughtfully exempted his own favorite timber and fish industries -- to supplement the Superfund money now raised by a tax on petrochemical production. Adding a new broad-based tax would clearly undermine the discipline of linking the costs of cleaning up toxic dumps as closely as possible to the activities that give rise to them.
Another dangerous provision sets up a "demonstration" program to provide compensation and services to people claiming injuries from environmental hazards. In fact, as a new study by a consortium of leading universities reports, at only one site is there now evidence supporting a link between exposure and serious health effects. Where such evidence exists, moreover, victims may already obtain relief in state courts.
But widespread public fears -- and the lack of a requirement that claimants prove their ailments were actually caused by the cited hazard -- make it a near certainty that the program would be met by huge demands for its expansion and continuation and would ultimately absorb most of the money meant to clean up potential hazards. The Finance Committee has already deleted funding authority for the program, but Sen. William Roth needs support on the floor to kill the program entirely.
On the more positive side, Sen. Alan Simpson will be offering amendments to speed settlements among parties responsible for the creating toxic dumps. He would retain the useful threat that a dumper who refuses to enter an agreement might be sued for the full cost of cleaning a dump, but add new inducements such as protections against future liability for companies who agree to state-of- the-art clean-ups. He would also ease settlements by making it clear that Congress wants EPA to chip in Superfund money to cover the share of bankrupt or unidentifiable contributors to a given site -- rather than forcing other companies to pay those costs as well as their own share.
Superfund still faces many hazards in the House. The chances of a safe and sane outcome would be greatly improved by sensible votes in the Senate.