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Oozing Forward

July 24, 1986

The Superfund could better be labeled the Superfunk these days. Legislation renewing and enlarging the major federal program to clean up toxic dumps around the country languishes in muggy Washington. Congressional conferees meander through the whereases, reconciling conflicting House and Senate bills with little sense of urgency. The Reagan Administration threatens to veto whatever emerges if the measure involves anything that resembles a tax increase. And the Environmental Protection Agency hasn't started any long-term cleanup operations since last August because it doesn't know how much money it will get in the bill and what rules it must live by.

Since last we tuned in on this miasmic performance, this much at least has occurred: The conferees have agreed to authorize $8.5 billion over five years, which means that whenever cleanup operations do resume, there'll be more than five times as much money as in the original legislation. The conferees have also agreed on good standards that provide strong incentives to seek permanent cleanup rather than mere containment of buried chemicals and minerals. But they have also agreed to a dismal cleanup schedule that would not move against these abandoned dumps with anything like the required urgency.

Still to be decided in the Superfund negotiations are how much polluters who want to settle their liability will have to pay and how much communities are entitled to know about emissions from nearby chemical factories. The House bill is tougher on the liability question, and the Senate measure is firmer about what companies must release information; the tougher provisions should prevail.

Then, as always, there is the matter of money. The House bill relies more heavily than the Senate bill on taxes on the oil and chemical industries, on the theory that the polluter should pay. But it is hard to sort industries out that way, and the Senate has the more equitable financing arrangement with a broader-based tax on more industries. Resolution of this key difference is likely to await completion of tax reform, but already the influential chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), has indicated that he's not as hostile to the broader tax as he once was. But President Reagan is, and his agents constantly raise the specter of a veto.

Speed is essential because of the way environmental enthusiasms of some politicians rise and fall with the election cycle; the closer an election, the more anxious they are to be tough on polluters. Interest subsides once elections are over. Cleaning up the nation's industrial garbage won't get any cheaper or any easier. It's time for the leadership to crack the whip.

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