WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators, stymied in their efforts to resolve House and Senate differences over the future of the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, introduced legislation Wednesday to provide emergency funds to head off a planned dismantling of the program by the end of this month.
"Clearly, the program is going to be gutted and important personnel are going to be lost" without emergency measures, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) said at a news conference. When the Superfund law expired Oct. 1, the federal government lost the authority to collect industry taxes to pay for cleanup efforts.
In the past, companies have paid more than $300 million a year in taxes to finance the program. To keep it alive until Congress can reauthorize it, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lee M. Thomas has relied on savings achieved by postponing long-term cleanups at 114 Superfund sites.
But Thomas now says that the fund is almost depleted and that he will have to cancel contracts with companies that clean the dumps, cut enforcement activities by half and emergency responses by 80% and prepare for the layoffs of 1,500 employees unless the program is reauthorized by April 1. Work already has been postponed at six of California's 19 Superfund sites.
Because House and Senate conferees are still deadlocked over such critical issues as the size of the program, its financing and cleanup schedules and standards, virtually no one believes that Congress will meet the April 1 deadline.
"If we don't act pretty quickly, within the next week before the (spring) recess, Administrator Thomas is going to dismantle the program," Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said. "We can't permit that to happen. It's not responsible."
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Lautenberg and 12 other senators asked that the emergency measures be acted on "as quickly as possible" because there is "no realistic chance" of settling House and Senate differences this month.
"If we do not provide this interim funding, Superfund will suffer serious and perhaps irreversible harm," the senators wrote.
The Senate proposal would give the agency $150 million to keep the program alive through May 31. A House proposal, introduced Tuesday, would allocate $35 million for a 45-day extension. Both chambers expressed optimism that they could reach agreement at least on short-term financing.
A bill passed by the House calls for a $10-billion, five-year Superfund program to be financed by higher taxes on the petrochemical industry. The Senate version calls for a $7.5-billion program to be financed by oil and chemical levies and a new broad-based tax on manufacturers. The White House has threatened to veto both financing plans.
EPA spokeswoman Robin Woods said Thomas would prefer a bill that would provide enough money to extend the program a year.
"He will take 60 days, if that's all he can get," she said. "He wants enough funding to maintain current contracts, both prime contractors and subcontractors, so meaningful work can continue out in the field."