Cleaning Up The Superfund

In 1980, at the height of the concern over toxic wastes at Love Canal near New York's Niagara Falls, Congress passed a sweeping measure designed to punish polluters and clean up the hundreds of hazardous waste dumps that dot the nation's landscape. The Superfund legislation was well-intentioned, but it has gone seriously awry, with costs over the next 30 years projected to approach $750 billion (BW--May 11).

The record so far is abysmal. The federal government and companies together have spent $11 billion, but only 84 of the 1,245 worst sites have been cleaned up. Scientists are no longer even certain about how much of a threat the chemicals at the remaining sites pose. In some instances, researchers suggest the public may be better off if sites are left as they are, rather than disturbing them.

For the most part, of course, erring on the side of public health and safety is prudent. But there are better schemes than the Superfund. Far too much money has been devoured by legal fees for endless litigation over which companies should pay how much to recompense the Environmental Protection Agency for the cost of cleanups. Apportioning costs or blame is less important than cleaning up the sites that pose clear threats.

For that reason, business week supports a financing scheme that avoids assigning blame to specific companies while spreading the costs around. The federal government already imposes a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries on the theory that they were responsible for a good portion of the wastes at these dump sites. This notion should be extended to all industrial companies through either a direct tax or a tax on the waste their facilities generate. This mechanism would end the litigation and let the big cleanup proceed.

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