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Superfund Reform Has Groups Edgy It’ll Boost Cleanup, Lawmakers Say; Others Fear Weaker Rules

Soon after Labor Day, lawmakers returning to Washington, D.C., plan to tackle one of the top Republican priorities for this session - Superfund reform.

The lawmakers behind reform efforts claim their intent is to divert money from litigation into cleanup.

But local environmental groups and an attorney for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe fear the reform package will undermine current efforts to bring cleanup to the Coeur d’Alene Basin.

“After over a hundred years of heavy metals mining contamination of the Coeur d’Alene Basin, the only cleanup efforts undertaken to date have been brought about through the federal Superfund law,” said Michele Nanni of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council.

“Now they want to weaken or eliminate these tools,” Nanni said.

Reform legislation is moving more quickly in the Senate than in the House. The Senate has a hearing scheduled for Sept. 4 in the Environment and Public Works Committee, of which Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, is a member. The committee is expected to vote on the bill soon after that, which means it could be on the Senate floor early this fall.

Staff members for committee Chairman John Chafee, R-R.I., won’t reveal what the latest version of the Superfund bill says, but controversial provisions, such as limiting the liability of polluters, still are on the table, said a Chafee spokesman.

Nanni and Coeur d’Alene tribal attorney Howard Funke are concerned that lawmakers will try to eliminate the “interim loss” provision in the law. That provision holds polluters liable for the time that the public is denied enjoyment of the resources damaged.

“That’s a standard target” of the Republicans, she said. “Superfund has been very powerful in getting companies to improve their pollution control and output. When you don’t have those kinds of hammers and tools, it becomes business as usual.”

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the federal government each are suing several mining companies in the Coeur d’Alene Basin for resource damages under the Superfund law.

Superfund reform language that came out of Idaho Rep. Mike Crapo’s office has the tribe and Nanni particularly concerned.

The proposal limits the type of damages that can be claimed, calls for a $50 million cap on liability of all responsible parties, and is retroactive to litigation in progress.

“This is an attempt to gut the Natural Resource Damage claims brought by the tribe, plain and simple,” Funke said.

Crapo spokeswoman Susan Wheeler said that judgment was premature, but she would not share the new proposal Monday.

In general, she said, “It’s the intention to put more money into actual cleanup instead of litigation.”

, DataTimes

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