The "Superfund" toxic-waste cleanup law is poised to move forward in the House next week, but the prospects of completing action this year are still hazy for a measure that has become the "War and Peace" of legislative efforts.
The cleanup law technically expired Oct. 1, along with the special chemical and petroleum taxes that finance it. The Environmental Protection Agency has put dozens of cleanups on ice to conserve funds while waiting for Congress to take action.
The Senate approved last summer a measure that would renew the bill for five years and increase its funding to $7.5 billion. But in the House, the legislation has been stalled for months, the victim of an increasingly acerbic battle among Democrats over which of two rival bills will be taken to the floor.
In a subplot worthy of Tolstoy's novel, meanwhile, the nation's leading industries have been busily committing fratricide over the question of who will pay for the massive program to clean up the worst of the nation's toxic dumps.
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Public Works and Transportation Chairman Robert A. Roe (D-N.J.) stayed on this week in a nearly deserted Capitol, trying to reconcile the differences in their committees' bills before taking the legislation to the Rules Committee next week.
Both bills would renew Superfund for five years and increase its funding to $10 billion. Beyond that, the bills veer off in different directions.
Dingell's version was approved by a bitterly divided panel this summer, after its supporters fought off efforts to set firm cleanup standards and deadlines and grant more legal rights to victims of toxic waste. Last year, Dingell's committee included all those provisions in a Superfund bill that won overwhelming support on the floor but died for lack of Senate action.
Roe's bill, supported by environmentalists and the dissenters on Dingell's committee, essentially takes up where last year's bill left off, adding new provisions to gather information on airborne chemical hazards.
If the Dingell-Roe impasse is not overcome, it will be up to the Rules Committee to decide which bill goes to the floor, leaving the other side to fight an uphill battle for amendments.
In the business community, the usual Superfund skirmishes over liability, standards and victims' rights have been largely overshadowed by a struggle to keep from getting stuck with the cleanup bill.
The Senate Superfund bill would raise nearly $5 billion from a broad-based tax on manufactured goods, put there with the fervent blessings of the oil and chemical industries. Oil and chemical companies have been paying most of the freight on Superfund through special excise taxes on their products.
The rest of the business community was blindsided by this corporate tax, which they regard as the moral equivalent of a value-added tax that could be expanded to provide enormous amounts of federal revenue.
"The chemical industry sold them a pig in a poke," said a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which quickly organized an anti-tax battalion. "They said it was a small tax that no one would object to. Well, it is a small tax, but the reason there was no business opposition to it was that nobody knew about it except the chemical and the petroleum people."
Nevertheless, despite the entreaties of a coalition that stretched from GMA and General Motors to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association and Hallmark Cards, the Ways and Means Committee narrowly approved the corporate tax as well.
Among the Superfund controversies still to be resolved in the House:
*Financing. In addition to a broad-based corporate tax expected to raise $3.8 billion, the Ways and Means Committee would establish a "waste-end" tax to be levied on landfilled hazardous wastes. On the floor, two amendments will attempt to delete the corporate tax. One, the Downey-Frenzel amendment, would make up the difference with slightly more general revenues, higher taxes on chemicals and petroleum and a higher "waste-end" tax. The other, the Duncan-Gregg amendment, would substantially increase funding from general revenues, lower the "waste-end" tax and create a "standby" corporate surcharge tax.
*Deadlines. The Energy and Commerce bill grants the EPA broad discretion to decide which and how many toxic-waste sites to add to its priority list for Superfund cleanup, and would not require any cleanups to begin during the five-year life of the bill. The Public Works bill would require the agency to list 1,600 sites by 1988 and start 600 cleanups by the end of the decade, at the rate of 150 a year starting in 1987.
*Standards. Energy and Commerce would permit flexibility in deciding "how clean is clean," including waivers of standards when fund resources are limited. The Public Works bill would require sites to be cleaned up to the standards set by other environmental laws and would permit no waivers.