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Moves to Reform Superfund Law Killed by Squabbles : Legislation: Talks produce unique coalition of environmentalists, industry and insurance interests. But disputes prove fatal to measure.

October 06, 1994|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Efforts to reform the 14-year-old Superfund law, one of the most widely used anti-pollution laws on the books, died in Congress Wednesday, one of a welter of environmental initiatives that have fallen by the wayside during the tumultuous 103rd Congress.

The demise came after months of grueling negotiations had forged an extraordinary coalition among environmentalists, industrial interests and the insurance industry. However, the law became a victim of eleventh-hour disputes among lawmakers, labor unions and some electronic industry opponents of the legislation.

"This is the real tragedy," said Marthena Cowart, spokeswoman for the Superfund Improvement Project, an insurance industry group that had backed the legislation. "It's a tragedy that well-intended efforts by literally hundreds of people in the most democratic process ever couldn't make this happen.

"This is the way it's all supposed to work, right?" she continued. "Of the people, by the people, for the people. And it didn't work out that way."

The end came when House Republicans balked at Democratic efforts to rush the bill to the House floor without amendments or debate and those involved in crafting the legislation declared simply that time had run out. Congress is to adjourn at the end of the week.

"The epitaph of this effort would be, 'Here lies Superfund Reform; it died from too many people wanting just a little bit more,' " said retiring Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), an architect of the bill.

Superfund now joins a virtual junkyard of dead and dying environmental initiatives on Capitol Hill. Last week, lawmakers halted an effort to reform an 1872 law governing mining on federal lands. Other environmental bills blocked in Congress this session would have elevated the Environmental Protection Agency to Cabinet status, established new guidelines to curb pollution of the nation's waterways, set new directions for federal flood policy and protected fisheries from over-exploitation.

As of Wednesday, efforts to pass a law setting new standards for drinking water purity and another designating a huge tract of California as national park land clung precariously to life as the congressional clock ticked down.

"It has not been a very good year for environmental legislation," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate committee that marked up the Superfund reform measure. "The Superfund bill got caught up in the partisanship. It wasn't the substance of the bill."

Even if the bill had been passed by the House, observers had said it was unclear whether the Senate's Republican leadership would have allowed such a high-profile piece of legislation that had White House backing to come to a vote this year. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in recent weeks had suggested that he would not support bringing the bill to the Senate floor.

But while the success of other environmental legislation has been in question from the start, until recently few believed that the Superfund reform bill, with its broad array of backers, would fall victim to the centrifugal forces in Congress.

The coalition backing Superfund legislation included virtually all major parties to past disputes over the sweeping law, including corporate giants that have been nabbed for major pollution spills, environmental and community groups, small business and major insurance organizations.

"If groups as contrary as those in this coalition can put aside their differences for the sake of the economy and the environment, surely Congress should be able to do as much," Baucus said.

But on Wednesday, lawmakers and EPA Administrator Carol Browner conceded that Congress could not put aside its differences and discontinued efforts to get the bill passed.

House Republicans, joined by a minority of Democrats, had pressed for the right to vote on amendments that would have relaxed the bill's groundwater protection standards further, strengthened a requirement to conduct cost-benefit analyses in support of Superfund cleanups and dictated that laborers working at cleanup sites be paid prevailing regional wages.

Swift called those provisions "killer amendments" that were unacceptable to managers of the bill and the House's Democratic leadership. "The fact was, we couldn't get there from here," Swift said.

Swift retires at the end of the current term but he and others involved in the reform effort predicted that many members of the coalition will stick together to try to pass a bill next year.

Even so, the death of the bill brought expressions of anger and disappointment.

William J. Roberts, legislative director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said that, by failing to enact the legislation, "Congress is likely to cause an already slow program to slow further, allow runaway litigation to continue and betray yet again the hundreds of communities waiting for relief."

One in four Americans lives within four miles of a toxic waste site scheduled for cleanup under the Superfund program. But after government expenditures of roughly $1.5 billion yearly--and far more on the part of private industry--only 237 of the 1,344 toxic waste sites deemed in need of emergency cleanup have been declared clean. California, with 96 sites on the Superfund list, has one of the largest shares in the country of such polluted sites.

In crafting the compromise that was set aside on Wednesday, lawmakers and Administration officials had focused mainly on the unintended costs of a program that has set off a decade-long frenzy of litigation among the federal government, corporate polluters, insurance companies, and, occasionally, unsuspecting bystanders.

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