Near the top of the list for action by Congress this year is reauthorization of the “Superfund” law, which provides for the cleaning up of abandoned toxic-waste dumps. The present law expires at the end of September. Last week, the Reagan administration submitted to Congress its proposal for modifying and, in some ways, expanding the current program. The proposal calls for spending $5.
3 billion over the next five years to clean up toxic-waste sites, compared with $1.6 billion spent since 1980, when the program started (SN: 2/9/85, p.86). One-third of the funds would come from a tax on crude oil, various petrochemicals and other raw materials used in the production of chemicals that contribute to the generation of toxic wastes. Two-thirdsd would come from a new “waste-end” tax collected on hazardous wastes received at treatment, storage or disposal facilities. Although this tax may, as the government suggests, encourage companies to produce lower levels of hazardous wastes, some critics fear that it may also encourage more illegal dumping. Equally controversial is the administration’s decision to ask for an increase from 10 to 20 percent in a state government’s share of cleanup costs.
However, states would now be allowed to initiate feedstock or waste-end taxes of their own to fund their activities. The chief question among many congressmen and a variety of environmental groups is whether the federal goverment’s proposal moves far enought fast enough. Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) itself estimated that cleaning up the nation’s worst abandoned hazardous-waste dumps could eventually cost $11.7 billion and possibly twice that much. A bill submitted to Congress earlier this year by Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.) would raise $7.
5 billion over five years. Last summer, the House passed a bill that authorized expenditures of more than $10 billion, but because the Senate didn’t meets its deadline, no law was enacted before Congress adjourned. But, says EPA Administrator Lee M. Thomas, going faster would strain the agency’s capacity to do its job carefully and effectively.
He suggests that the present law already is too sweeping. The administration’s proposal would prohibit the use of Superfund for cleaning up, for example, wastes from mining activities or asbestos in buildings, unless the President decides that a major threat to public health exists and no one else can respond soon enough. “In focusing our atten,” says Thomas, “we establish a more concerted effort to clean up what we feel are the most dangerous sites in the nation.