In the corridors on Capitol Hill, a great tug-of-war is raging over the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program, but Bruce Stetson is all by himself at the end of his rope.
Stetson is the chief executive officer of a small New York firm, Chem-Tech, which specializes in testing soil and water samples for contamination by heavy metals and cyanide. More than 80 percent of Chem-Tech's work these days is done under contract to the federal government -- more specifically, the Superfund program.
Last week the Environmental Protection Agency called Stetson to tell him the program was running out of money and the contract would soon be terminated.
"They told me Feb. 15 is the drop-dead date," he said. "What am I going to do? I don't know. I can't believe they're going to let this program die."
It wouldn't be the first time that political crossfire claimed an innocent victim, but the saga of Superfund illustrates the breadth of Washington's battle over budgets, deficits and taxes.
In Congress, the Superfund program enjoys more sanctity than Social Security. Members who think the program should be cut are about as common as passenger pigeons, and even the Reagan administration sheathed the long knives at the Office of Management and Budget to endorse an expansion.
Yet the law aimed at cleaning up the nation's Love Canals and other toxic dumps technically expired four months ago, taking with it the special petrochemical taxes that finance the cleanup.
The EPA's checkbook is nearly overdrawn. By April, according to agency officials, the bulldozers and technicians will disappear from more than 400 dumps that are believed to pose an imminent danger to public health and the environment.
"This is a day I feared might arrive," Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said last week as EPA Administrator Lee M. Thomas delivered the news.
For an odd assortment of reasons, Superfund has become an unwilling player in the bigger court of tax policy and budget reconciliation -- a game made even rougher, some say, by political turf-fighting.
The immediate obstacle to passage is money: The Senate approved a broad-based manufacturing tax as part of its $7.5 billion measure, while the House adopted a sharp increase in petrochemical taxes as the foundation of its $10 billion program.
The issue held up approval of a large budget reconciliation bill last year, and it doesn't appear much closer to resolution now. According to congressional aides, neither Senate Finance Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) nor House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) want to throw in the towel on Superfund while the larger issue of tax reform is outstanding.
Meanwhile, the new imperatives of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law may make even short-term financing a difficult proposition.
The administration, after opposing stopgap funding all last year, has suggested reinstating the expired petrochemical taxes for one year and borrowing an additional $600 million from the Treasury -- in essence, raising the deficit by that amount.
OMB officials floated a similar borrowing scheme last year, but the idea found little support in Congress.
At EPA headquarters in Waterside Mall, meanwhile, officials warn that Superfund is crumbling and could take the rest of the agency down with it. If the program is not renewed this year, more than 1,500 jobs will vanish at the end of the fiscal year.
According to the EPA, the resulting "bumps" and displacements in civil service jobs could affect 7,000 employes, about half the agency's work force, and create chaos in all the environmental programs.
In New York, Stetson is not much comforted by assurances that everybody in this battle claims to be on his side.
Stetson readily acknowledges that the survival of his own business is uppermost on his mind, but he contends that the nation has a stake as well. His specialty lab is part of the technological framework for toxic-waste cleanups, he said, and once gone it will not be easy to replace.
"If we get shut down, we're out," he said. "There is only one other lab in the country capable of doing what we do. And a lot of companies aren't going to make that commitment to the federal government."