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GOP Seeks to Open Spill-Cleanup Funds to Polluters

The energy bill would be modified to let firms use tax money to help undo leak damage from their underground tanks. Democrats object.

September 26, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Abandoning long-running talks with Democrats, House Republicans plan to move ahead with a proposal allowing more companies to tap federal funds to clean up spills of gasoline and other petroleum products from underground storage tanks, members of Congress said Thursday.

The proposal has been debated for months in a House subcommittee but has not yet won approval, with opponents saying the GOP version would allow polluters to evade financial responsibility for their spills.

Now, the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Paul E. Gillmor (R-Ohio), is trying to add the measure to the massive energy bill that already has passed the House and Senate, lawmakers and congressional aides said. Gillmor is a member of the House-Senate conference committee revising the energy bill.

The measure would allow the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund, made up of money from a gasoline tax, to pay for cleanups if the cost would impair the operator's ability to stay in business. It would also bar the federal government from seeking repayment from the owners for cleanup costs.

A similar proposal approved by the Senate early this year drew complaints from Christie Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who said it would violate the principle that polluters must pay for cleanups. That principle was established by the 1980 Superfund law.

"This clause runs afoul of the long-standing 'polluter pays' principle" established by the 1980 Superfund law, Whitman said of the Senate provision in a March 7 letter to a House committee chairman. She also said that the provision would "limit the agency's ability to recover even partial costs" from a polluter's insurance company.

The House and Senate began work on the issue after the EPA and the General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, concluded that not enough has been done to repair and replace leaky underground storage tanks, which can pollute drinking water with benzene, the gasoline additive MTBE and other hazardous chemicals.

Lawmakers working to reconcile House and Senate versions of the energy bill have not yet agreed to include Gillmor's proposal, said Marnie Funk, spokeswoman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But several House aides and an industry lobbyist said it likely would be included.

The EPA regulates nearly 700,000 storage tanks, most containing petroleum, on 265,000 properties throughout the country. As of a year ago, more than 427,000 leaks from those tanks had been confirmed and more than 284,000 contaminated sites had been cleaned up over the previous decade, according to the EPA.

Gillmor said he could not imagine why Democrats would oppose the cleanup measure.

"Let's say you have a site where whoever polluted it doesn't have the money to clean it up. If you don't pay for [the cleanup] out of the fund, it doesn't get cleaned up, and that's not very good for the environment," said Gillmor, who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on environment and hazardous materials. "It's not getting rid of the general principle of polluter pays."

The measure would also encourage operators to voluntarily seek training to help avoid mistakes that result in leaks, send more of the trust fund to the states for the cleanups and establish a new timetable for states to inspect storage tanks, the House aides and lobbyist said. It would also hold companies liable for delivering gasoline to a tank that they know is leaking or broken, they said.

But Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said that the proposal would allow companies with means to pay to avoid accountability for polluting.

"I'm quite disappointed with the Republicans," Solis said. "They want to change the rules and say that a big polluter doesn't have to pay back the trust fund."

Solis said she was worried that the trust fund, which now has $2 billion, would quickly be depleted. She also complained that the measure had been drafted behind closed doors.

Solis said that the fate of the measure is especially important in California because of its problems with MTBE contamination.

The measure would also encourage operators to seek training to help avoid mistakes that result in leaks, send more of the trust fund to the states for the cleanups and establish a new timetable for states to inspect storage tanks, the House aides and lobbyist said.

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