Parties Must Join for Superfund Solution
By Elkhart Mayor James P. PerronMay 5, 1997
Each national election produces a call to end unnecessary partisanship in Washington. We will soon have an ideal opportunity to see how sincere Congress and the White House are about cooperating on an issue of national importance when they take up the issue of reforming Superfund, the nation's hazardous waste clean-up program.
In fact, if ever there was a time that bipartisanship was required, then Superfund reform should be easily achieved, since Republicans and Democrats alike have been critical of the problem-riddled program. According to President Clinton, "Superfund is a disaster." House Speaker Newt Gingrich is equally blunt calling it "a national disgrace."
Superfund was created in 1980 to identify sites that are contaminated by hazardous waste and to make those responsible pay for the clean-up. Identifying a potential Superfund site is easy. The cleaning of such a site has become expensive, bureaucratic, time-consuming and litigious.
The Superfund program was initially supposed to last five years, with a budget of $1.6 million. Sixteen years later, Superfund's budget has consumed more than $30 billion. Of more than 1,300 sites slated for remediation, less than one-third have been fully cleaned up.
It costs, on average, $25 to $30 million to cleanup a site, which takes a decade to complete. Superfund sites are not being returned to communities for productive use at a rapid enough pace.
Under the Superfund program of today, everyone loses; the companies that have paid more than $12 billion in special taxes which are now being used for purposes other than cleaning up sites; cities that can't redevelop industrial property; environmentalists who want to fix these sites; and the people who live near them.
But if national politicians agree that Superfund doesn't work as intended, they now should agree on a solution. Fortunately, there is legislation now before the Senate, the Superfund Clean-up Acceleration Act of 1997 (S.8) that would allow the program to finally begin working swiftly and efficiently by addressing three key issues:
Common sense clean-ups. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) interpretation of the Superfund law with respect to clean-ups has created obstacles. There currently is no flexibility in choosing the right remedy. Cost is not adequately considered and the risk communities face from a site is often overstated based upon extreme calculations. S.8 will allow the EPA to accept more reasonable remedies by streamlining process in considering such factors that fit a particular site as well as modern technologies that did not exist in 1980.
Fairness in liability. Determining who must pay for clean-ups has triggered many legal challenges. Indeed, Superfund has often been referred to as the "Lawyers Full Employment Act." Standards for holding entities liable are so broad that if you are ever in the chain of title of a property that has become a Superfund site, you can be held liable for part or all of the entire cleanup. Superfund looks for the deepest pocket that it can find irrespective of actual liability.
S.8 will establish fundamental fairness in Superfund's liability provisions by making sure that all parties, not just those with the greatest amount of money, are held accountable.
Community involvement. Right now, everyone; government officials, lawyers, liable parties, environmentalists, have had a loud voice when it comes to cleaning a site, except for those in the local communities who must live with the consequences. S.8 will give local residents a larger and earlier role in the process to ensure communities have a say in the remediation plan.
The Elkhart area, as well as most of northern Indiana, has had more than its share of experience with environmental clean-up and Superfund sites. Residents throughout northern Indiana as well as elected officials have come to recognize the need for Superfund reform perhaps better than many areas of the country.
We recognize that together, these critical Superfund reforms will return the focus from courtroom to clean-up of environment. Reforms will significantly reduce the cost and increase the number of sites that are scheduled for clean-up.
This is one issue on which our congressional leaders and the White House can certainly set aside partisanship. Here in Elkhart and throughout the Third Congressional District we are counting upon Congressman Tim Roemer and others in Congress to lead the effort towards the needed Superfund reforms. I believe we all are counting on Congress and the White House to work together on cleaning up the nation's hazardous waste.
Copyright © 1996, US Conference of Mayors, All rights reserved.