The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder Update #14

June 10, 1986

June 10, 1986 | Backgrounder Update on

Improving Toxic Waste's Superfund

(Archived document, may contain errors)

6/10/86 14


(Updating Back_grounder No. 440,, "The Many Hazards of a Mega-Superfund.11 June 10, 1985.)

As House and Senate conferees move toward final agreement on the legislation to reauthorize the Superfund toxic waste cleanup law, a number of key issues still need to be resolved. Among them: how to finance the proposed expansion of Superfund from $1.5 billion to $8.5 billion; how much to spend on helping residents living near Superfund sites cope with the health consequences of a toxic spill or leakage; what standards to set for permissible levels of various toxic substances at sites; and how to create an inventory system to track chemical substances entering and leaving plants.

Raising the money to expand Superfund remains a hotly contested issue. The central dispute concerns the extent to which future revenues will be raised from the oil and chemical industry. At present, Superfund is financed primarily through a tax on the oil and natural gas used to make petrochemicals. Critics point out that these substances are not the source of most toxic wastes. In place of this tax, they propose a broader-based levy because, they say, all industries contribute to the creation of toxic waste. As such, Superfund should be financed by a tax on all sectors of manufacturing.

Many advocates of this "broad-based" tax view it as a means of instituting a national value added tax (VAT). The problem with this is that it would not link the amount each firm is charged with the amount of waste it generates. Par better would be to impose a user fee based on the actual volume of toxic waste a firm generates. Unlike a VAT, or indeed any general tax, this would create an incentive not to pollute.

The second area of concern relates to the cost of monitoring and assessing the potential health effects of a spill or leakage on residents living near a Superfund site, and that of providing Xreatment for resultant illnesses. While it is clearly the intent of Congress that victims of a spill be given such aid, a careful screening program must be established to prevent an uncontrolled expansion of eligible beneficiaries. Similar programs, such as that for the victims of Black Lung disease, expanded far beyond their original scope and cost. Without proper screening, that could also happen with the proposal in the Superfund reauthorization bill.

A third concern is the permissible levels of toxic substances allowed to be emitted from a Superfund site. Some lawmakers would impose stringent and uniform standards,, leaving the Environmental Protection Agency little leeway to take into account local differences, such as the proximity of population centers. EPA, however,, should be allowed to take into consideration such factors in determining when to declare a site non-hazardous.

The method of keeping track of chemical substances entering and leaving industrial plants is also a concern. one version of the Superfund reauthorization calls for "mass balancing"; this would require companies to keep precise track of every bit of raw material they use. While such a system may appear reasonable at first glance, there are serious questions as to whether such tracking can be accomplished, given the current state of technology. In virtually every manufacturing process, there are raw material losses that cannot be accounted for. Minute quantities of substances, for instance, can cling to machinery, pipes, and other equipment.

Many of the substances used in manufacturing,, moreover, do not create toxic wastes. To require close and costly accounting of them, therefore, serves no useful purpose. In addition, taking the approach of counting "every sparrow that falls" may lead to widespread evasion of the costly regulations. A more workable and reasonable inventory system would allow for manufacturing losses and limit accounting to those substances known to present a hazard to human health.

Congress has determined that Superfund should be expanded. Given this decision, the House and Senate conferees should target federal expenditures on the cleanup of waste sites and on coping with the health effects of toxic spills, while creating incentives not to pollute. To do this, the financing of Superfund must be kept broad-based and related to waste emission. Outlays for health effects must be limited to those who can show they suffer health problems due to a toxic spill or leakage. Standards for classifying sites must be flexible. And a workable system for keeping track of hazardous substances must be devised. With these policies, the U.S. will be close to resolving, at last, its toxic waste cleanup problem.

Milton R. Copulos Senior Policy Analyst

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