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Superfund Plan Reaches Too Far

Thu., July 13, 1995

The Superfund program, which fosters litigation instead of cleanup, unquestionably needs an overhaul. But a proposed Republican revision of the Superfund law goes too far.

The plan seeks to absolve private-sector polluters of responsibility for toxic messes made prior to enactment of the Superfund law in 1980. Supporters of the revision argue, with some merit, that it is unfair to reach back in time to penalize polluters.

But it’s equally unfair to permit corporate polluters to wiggle away from their toxic messes and stick taxpayers with the cleanup tab - an estimated $800 million to $1.3 billion annually.

Moderate Superfund reform is needed - reform that holds polluters accountable for their messes without forcing them into bankruptcy.

But in its rush to downsize, devolve and deregulate, the new Republican majority in Congress has overstepped with this proposal. Government still has a responsibility to protect public health and the environment.

Conversely, congressional Republicans have a legitimate beef with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s handling of the Superfund program. The EPA has wielded the program like a giant club, forcing companies into bankruptcy or into costly court battles.

Critics accuse the EPA of routinely misleading people about the dangers of Superfund sites, of setting extreme cleanup standards, of not considering the cost involved in remedial actions and of being ineffective.

One detractor, Richard L. Stroup, contends the risks posed by most Superfund sites generally are imaginary. He says the EPA’s risk analysis “strings together extreme assumptions that exaggerate expected risks by 100, 1,000 or even 10,000 times. The EPA does not tell citizens the expected or most likely risk, but only the risk associated with worst-case scenarios.”

Incredibly, the Superfund law allows the EPA to hold a single business responsible for the cost of an entire cleanup and requires the agency to recommend remedial work without considering the cost. No wonder polluters prefer court to cleanup - and only about 200 of more than 1,200 waste sites have been cleaned up in the past 15 years.

The Republican plan would force the EPA to concentrate on truly dangerous sites and to select the remedy that protects human health and the environment at the lowest possible cost; the plan also would hold companies responsible for only their share of a pollution problem.

Those are good ideas. But Superfund reforms shouldn’t include blanket absolution for corporate polluters.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board

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