Toxic Debts and the Superfund Dilemma

By Harold C. Barnett | Go to book overview
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The first half of the 1980s witnessed substantial conflict over Superfund implementation. Through 1983, events at the national, state, and regional levels were dominated by Reagan administration efforts to eviscerate the program and guarantee that there would be no Son of Superfund. During 1984 and 1985, conflict over Superfund implementation was played out against the backdrop of congressional hearings on reauthorization. EPA revised its cleanup and settlement strategies while Congress scrutinized its actions.

The purpose of this chapter is to evaluate Superfund through 1985 to highlight the roots of its failure. This involves telling three versions of the Superfund implementation story. The emphasis of the first summary version is on aggregate measures of progress. The emphasis of the second version is on fund-financed cleanup and the selection of cleanup remedies. The emphasis of the third version is on enforcement strategy and responsible party cleanup. The common theme running through these versions is that the failure of Superfund is rooted in four intertwined program characteristics: the absence of cleanup standards, the preference for containment versus permanent treatment technologies, the strategies applied to promote fund- and responsible party-financed cleanup, and the program's budget constraints.

The first root emerges from resolution of the how-clean-is-clean controversy. At issue is whether the adequacy of cleanup is to be judged on a case-by- case basis or with reference to explicit cleanup standards. EPA's rejection of the latter option generally lowered the cost of cleanup and the protection afforded exposed communities and the environment.

The second root emerges from economic and technological factors. Containment technologies are less expensive in the short run than are permanent treatment technologies but, due to their impermanence, are often more


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Toxic Debts and the Superfund Dilemma


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