WASHINGTON — Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly, responding to a deluge of criticism about the slow and costly progress of hazardous waste cleanup, pledged Wednesday to shift the focus of the nation's Superfund program to force industries to pay a greater share of cleanup costs.
The turn to such adversarial tactics--including use of a law requiring uncooperative polluters to pay triple the costs of the damage they cause--comes as part of a full-scale EPA reassessment of Superfund, whose estimated cost has soared to $30 billion.
In outlining the "mid-course correction" of the nine-year-old program, Reilly acknowledged that Superfund had proven inefficient in the past. But he argued that public expectations of rapid progress had often been unreasonable.
"This is a program on which the public will be embarked for a long time to come," Reilly said.
Wants Faster Pace
The agency's projected crackdown on industrial polluters is aimed at speeding the pace of hazardous waste cleanup without adding to the burden on taxpayers. The effort is to be bolstered by near-doubling of the Superfund enforcement staff, including a shift of 500 officials and $75 million previously allocated to other tasks within the program.
A senior Justice Department official strongly endorsed the plan and said the department stood ready to "take additional aggressive action in the courts."
"Businesses should simply not be allowed to avoid having to pay for the detritus they're spreading around," said Donald A. Carr, acting assistant attorney general for land and natural resources.
The new "blueprint" for Superfund was intended as the agency's answer to more than 30 separate studies that have criticized the slow pace of hazardous waste cleanup under the program, which has been saddled with cost overruns and tainted by scandal.
List of Sites to Grow
Of 1,200 sites on the agency's top priority list, only 26 have been totally cleaned up. And with scores of new sites identified each year, the high-priority list is expected to reach 2,100 by the turn of the century.
Among the program's sharpest critics were members of the Senate Environment Committee, who demanded that Reilly reevaluate Superfund's course. The EPA chief is to formally present the plan to the panel's Superfund subcommittee.
Its chairman, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and another Superfund critic, Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.), both praised the EPA review for its willingness to acknowledge the failures of the past.
"It appears that we finally have a team willing to get the Superfund program moving," Lautenberg said.
Durenberger added: "EPA needs to make more use of the powerful enforcement tools in Superfund to get recalcitrant industries to pay to clean up the pollution they have created."
The agency has always sought to persuade polluting companies to pay the costs of hazardous waste cleanup. But it has tended first to use federal money to clean up the sites and only later to seek reimbursement. As a result, EPA's efforts to recover Superfund costs now lag far behind its expenditures.
The agency had previously refrained from an "enforcement first" approach, warning that to rely on polluters might unwisely delay necessary cleanup efforts. But Reilly insisted Wednesday that if EPA were to demonstrate a willingness to penalize polluters aggressively, the threat would force companies to clean up hazardous waste sites promptly.
"I really hope and expect that we're going to increase the pace of the cleanups," Reilly said.