Congress Takes New Look at Superfund's Many Woes Only 54 of More Than 1,200 Sites on Priority List Have Been Made Safe

Article excerpt

IT seemed relatively simple in 1980: Identify the few hundred hazardous-waste sites around the country, charge the polluters a fee, and clean up the sites. End of problem.

But the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or "Superfund," has become an environmental, bureaucratic, and political nightmare. The list of potential problem sites has grown to about 35,000 and continues to grow. Of the more than 1,200 or so worst sites (those on the "National Priorities List"), just 54 have been cleaned up to the point at which they are off the list. And only another 164 have had cleanup construction completed despite tens of billions of dollars spent from public and private sources.

Of those billions, most of the money - 70 percent by some estimates - has gone for lawsuits, making it what some cynics call "the attorneys' endowment fund."

"Superfund has become the program everybody loves to hate," says Rep. Al Swift (D) of Washington, who chairs the House subcommittee that deals with hazardous materials.

Carol Browner, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, points to some good results from the law: thousands of short-term cleanups that have reduced public-health risks, more voluntary efforts by businesses and municipalities to prevent pollution, and the development of new hazardous-waste control and cleanup technologies. Cleanup cost staggering

Still, Ms. Browner said in recent Senate testimony: "The job we face cleaning up hazardous-waste sites seems more formidable than ever." By the time all sites are made safe, according to some estimates, the total cost could reach $1 trillion.

Superfund - the largest EPA program - is up for congressional reauthorization this year, and the way lawmakers deal with it in coming months could affect most everyone in this country.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the law, points out that 41 million Americans live within four miles of a hazardous-waste site.

Much of the costs to date have gone to settle legal disputes between corporations charged with pollution and their insurance companies. Among the issues here is whether cleanup costs constitute "damages" under liability-insurance policies. Everyone affected

"The American legal system faces an environmental liability-insurance crisis," Kenneth Abraham, a University of Virginia law professor, told an American Bar Association meeting last month. "It is a very substantial drag on the economy {which} affects everybody because indirectly it adds to the cost of almost everything."

Part of the problem, critics say, is that Superfund's principle of "make the polluter pay" sweeps the relatively innocent and blatantly guilty into the liability net. Its "joint, several, and retroactive" provisions mean that minor parties can be just as liable as major polluters. …