SUPERFUND legislation, having languished in the House for the last few months, picked up steam recently as it moved through three more committees. It also picked up added baggage that, despite good intentions to the contrary, may actually slow its effectiveness in cleaning up toxic dump sites.
The House must still reconcile the issues raised by the various committee bills -- including the final big question of how to finance Superfund -- and work out its differences with the Senate, which has already cleared a generally reasonable bill, in a manner acceptable to the White House. Any serious hitch along the way could force Congress to resort to a simple short-term extension of current law -- and less progress against toxic hazards.
Apart from its dilatory tendencies, Congress has been slow to reauthorize Superfund because there are genuine uncertainties about how to determine which dumps are hazards, how to clean up those that are and how to assign responsibility for their creation in the first place. Advocates of fast, mandatory action often fail to acknowledge that evidence of actual harm from dump sites is still scanty and that each site can present unforeseeable challenges. While Rita Lavelle's shenanigans as Superfund chief should not be forgotten, many of the deficiencies of past clean-up efforts arose from ignorance about how best to proceed rather than from deliberate short-cutting.
Arguably the most efficient way to deal with toxic dumps would be to give considerable discretion to the EPA to assess hazards, assign liabilities and select clean-up methods. But the House Public Works Committee, stiffening requirements in a bill reported earlier by the Energy and Commerce Committee, wants to keep EPA on a shorter rein by setting strict timetables for clean-ups and precise standards for reducing each type of toxic. The Judiciary Committee also would allow citizen groups to push their own clean-up priorities by suing EPA to force clean up of specific sites. And while the various measures would make some reforms that might speed clean-up agreements among liable parties, Judiciary would add a new courtroom opportunity for both liable companies and citizen groups to block EPA clean-up efforts if they disagreed with the method chosen.
Given unlimited time and money, all this judicial and community review might produce a somewhat safer clean-up effort -- but even that's not a sure thing. And time is important where a dump may leak into ground water. Nor is Superfund money "free" -- though it may seem so to districts clamoring for their share. No matter how the taxes to finance the fund are levied, clean-up costs will ultimately be added to the prices of the goods bought by consumers or they will show up in jobs lost to foreign competitors. Those costs will e much higher -- and progress much slower -- if the new Superfund bill encourages lawsuits instead of clean-ups.