The passage of Superfund into law on the eve of Ronald Reagan's election as president of the United States set in motion two diametrically opposed forces: a legislative mandate to commit billions of dollars to the cleanup of hazardous waste sites and a White House-interpreted mandate to get government off the backs of the people. Their opposition produced the Sewergate scandal of 1982-83 and kindled my desire to write a political economy of Superfund.
In the early 1980s I was researching government control of illegal corporate behavior. Some of my colleagues perceived a clear tendency for government to take a tougher stand against law violations by large corporations. The progress of the deregulatory movement, gaining strength since the mid-1970s, suggested that their optimism was misplaced. In this context, Superfund appeared a perfect vehicle to gauge the force and direction of government involvement in market relationships and to address a question of increasing relevance as the 1980s progressed: Is it possible to successfully pursue environmental goals in a political economic system that is biased toward the interests of capital and under an administration that unabashedly advocates that bias as in the public interest?
It has taken almost a decade to investigate and write a story of Superfund that spans the Reagan and Bush administrations. As of this writing, there is a new president in the White House and a new EPA administrator. Congress is again addressing Superfund reauthorization issues. The reader might then ask whether this book has relevance to environmental protection under a new administration and a redesigned law. Is it of more interest to academics than to those who must contend with the real world of Superfund cleanup? My best answer to these questions is to state the conclusion of the book: The failure of Superfund to promote an efficient and equitable response to hazardous waste site threats is rooted in an inherent conflict over economic and environmental priorities. This conflict encompasses and goes beyond self-interested political battles. Rather, it emerges, on the one hand, from the fact that a concerted and successful effort to place the burden of cleanup on those corporations responsible for hazardous waste generation and disposal has far-reaching implications for the operation and viability of our capitalist economy. On the other hand, to write off hazardous waste site risks as overstated and shrink the program or to