The Supreme Court, in a decision that may frustrate state efforts to clean up hazardous waste sites, ruled 7 to 1 yesterday that states may not tax chemical manufacturers to pay cleanup costs if the federal government intends to clean up those sites.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the majority, struck down portions of a New Jersey law, saying the $1.6 billion federal Superfund, overwhelmingly funded by taxes on the oil and chemical industry, preempts similar state efforts.
Environmentalists said the ruling would cripple state efforts while legislation to extend Superfund is bogged down on Capitol Hill. House and Senate conferees have agreed to allow states to have superfund programs, according to Leslie Dach of the National Audubon Society, but the legislation may not pass soon and the federal Superfund's taxing authority expired in September.
As a result, Dach said, federal activities have slowed and the court's ruling will keep some states from filling the gap by relying on special taxes. States that fund cleanups through bonds or general revenues may not be affected as much as New Jersey, which relies heavily on the $12 million it collects each year from its special tax.
Oil and chemical companies, which challenged the New Jersey program as a form of double taxation, hailed the ruling. "The court recognized the inequity of a narrowly based tax," said Jeff Van, a spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturers Association.
Under the ruling, states such as New Jersey may still tax industries for cleanup efforts not covered by Superfund, such as oil spills, and they may compensate anyone who has been damaged by hazardous wastes, also not covered by federal law.
New Jersey also may use the tax funds to pay for the state's 10 percent matching share of cleanup costs, which a state spokesman said yesterday was one of the main uses of the tax.
But once the federal government has indicated that it intends to clean a site, states may not separately impose taxes to clean that site. Congress expressed "concern about the potentially adverse effects of overtaxation . . . of the American petrochemical industry," Marshall said.
While the law was "at best inartful and at worst redundant," he said, it seemed clear that Congress did not intend for such state excise taxes to be used to clean sites the Environmental Protection Agency had targeted for cleanup.
Dach said the practical effect of the ruling would be to stymie state efforts on some of the most hazardous sites in the country. EPA has about 800 sites on its priority list and is likely to add more while it works on only "a very small fraction of known problem dumps," Dach said.
The ruling, he said, also would hinder states from acting on any of those sites unless they wanted to use general revenues, which often is difficult. As a result, many states will be forced to wait perhaps decades until the EPA can act on their sites or until Congress acts, Dach said.
Van said the ruling "illustrates the need for Congress and the states to address the issue of fairness" in passing a new Superfund law. That and other issues are holding up the legislation. The Senate has approved a broad-based manufacturing tax as part of its $7.5 billion bill, but the House wants a sharp increase in petrochemical taxes for its $10 billion program.
Justice John Paul Stevens dissented from the ruling in Exxon Corp. v. Hunt, while Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. did not participate.