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Superfund reauthorization opens door to change.

Eleven years ago, Congress launched a new program designd to clean up uncontrolled hazardous waste sites in the United States. This Superfund program was expected to have a limited lifetime and be able to address quickly the few hundred dangerous sites that might be found. Quickly, the nation realized that there were more sites with serious levels of contamination than anyone expected.

The law was extended an additional five years in 1986 and another four years in 1990. Today, more than 35,000 potential sites have been reported to our inventory, and more than 1,200 are on the National Priorities List (NPL) for federal action. As a result, Superfund has become a very different program than we anticipated eleven years ago. We have been surprised by the complexity of each new site: the unique combinations of contaminants that make each site a different kind of challenge to clean up; and the extent to which groundwater is contaminated and the time it takes to pump and treat the huge amounts of water affected.

Throughout the past eleven years more than just the scope of the program has changed. We have vastly improved our knowledge and ability to effectively and efficiently identify, design remedies for, and ultimately clean up sites. Early implementation focused on administrative and legal requirements--establishing the infrastructure. Once the infrastructure was in place, the focus shifted towards cleanup and our policies emphasized enforcement opportunities that would enhance the ability of the program to address more sites. With reauthorization again on the horizon, the debate has escalated over whether the program is meeting the country's needs most efficiently and effectively, and what changes must be made to achieve the nation's cleanup goals.

A few strongly held views are unlikely to change. The public wants faster cleanups and believes that Superfund has enough money to get the job done. Potentially responsible parties (PRPs)--including municipalities--believe the program is often unfair in allocating liability and that there should be a more equitable distribution of cleanup costs. Amidst these beliefs, Superfund has succeeded in "turning the corner" in recent years. Superfund's complexity and conflicting mandates frequently overshadow the substantial accomplishments of this misunderstood program.

Superfund, a vanguard environmental program and first to attack multimedia and multi-dimensional environmental woes, is truly making headway. A federal program has to be designed and built, science developed, and technology pioneered. Yet for all its growing pains, the Superfund program over the last 11 years has protected 23 million people from the dangers posed by releases of hazardous wastes.

Almost three thousand emergency actions have been taken to protect people from immediate threats. Ninety percent of all NPL sites have in-depth scientific or engineering analysis underway. Cleanup construction is underway at fully half of the 1,200 sites on the NPL, and all surface cleanup has been completed at almost two hundred sites.

We have treated enough liquid waste to equal the amount of water displaced by an aircraft carrier. We have treated enough groundwater to provide drinking water to New York City for five years. Parties responsible for creating these waste sites are signing up in record numbers to pay their share of cleanup costs--a total of $5 billion to date.

A great deal has been accomplished in the eleven years since we left the drawing board, but much work lies before us. It will take many years to clean up our nation's hazardous refuse, and many more decades to cleanse our contaminated aquifers. I don't think anyone would seriously say that we don't need a Superfund program. We can't ignore threats posed by uncontrolled hazardous waste sites any more than we can ignore the problems facing our economy. We can, however, improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and equity of Superfund, and that is now our highest priority.

As we struggle with ways to improve Superfund, we must keep our eye on our ultimate mission--to reduce the threat to the public and the environment from uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. As we examine ways to address the liability concerns of municipalities and small contributors, we must keep in mind that Superfund enforcement has resulted in a huge increase in the funds available to address sites. As more responsible parties contribute to cleanup costs, Fund dollars are freed to clean up sites that might otherwise have to wait.

I look forward to the coming dialogue on Superfund reauthorization. I am open to new ideas on improving the program through legislative means. In the meantime, however, I do not plan to sit still. We will continue to vigorously implement the current law and look for additional ways to solve problems administratively.

We are working aggressively to streamline the program and cut several years off the time it takes to clean up a site. We will combine and eliminate steps in the Superfund process, and speed up the program by eliminating unnecessary delays. Our past experience will be more effectively used as we standardize remedies where appropriate and establish cleanup levels for soil. By the end of this year, we plan to double the number of sites cleaned up and triple that number by the end of 1993. We are also demanding better value for our contract dollars and improving Superfund's risk assessment and risk management process.

Over the past several years, there has been increased demand from many quarters for relief from Superfund's strict liability. Some demand a structural change to the program, while others ask for exemptions and exclusions. EPA is taking a hard look at liability, especially for lenders, municipalities and de minimis parties. In the past year we have published a proposed rule for lender liability and developed a proposal designed to increase the opportunities for de minimis settlements.

We have also worked to develop municipal allocation guidelines which will determine the fair share of cleanup costs for municipalities that wish to resolve their Superfund liability fairly and quickly. These initiatives, within the context of the existing statute, improve the equity of the Superfund program, without damaging the strength of the liability scheme.

The last time Superfund was reauthorized was a painful experience for nearly everyone involved. This time, I think the dialogue is beginning earlier and the issues are becoming more clearly defined.

In order to ensure an informed debate next year, I recently sponsored a conference hosted by Resources for the Future to identify priority areas for research. I am funding several studies on Superfund costs and benefits, as well as the "pipeline" of Superfund sites.

Congress is holding hearings to establish the record, and study groups are forming to further the process. EPA is a strong participant in these early discussions, and we hope to help by identifying the strengths of the current program, implementing administrative fixes as appropriate, and by focusing the debate on those area where real improvements can be made. In the meantime, EPA plans to oppose "piecemeal" amendments to the statute, preferring to address Superfund in a thoughtful and comprehensive way.

There is a lot of work ahead of us, but we must keep our eyes focused on the goal. We must not let short-term relief for a few stand in the way of our protecting America from the kind of hazardous waste problems Superfund is designed to clean up. We have achieved much -- and the future holds great promise for increasing the pace, efficiency, and fairness of Superfund.

Don Clay is assistant administrator for Sold Waste and Emergency Response at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As such, he is responsible for the preponderance of federal activity in administering the Superfund program.
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Title Annotation:includes related information about the report; Special Report: Future of Superfund Needs Careful Attention
Author:Clay, Don; Kocheisen, Carol
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Feb 24, 1992
Words:1263
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