15 November 1999 00:00 [Source: ICB Americas]By Glenn Hess
With Congress about to wrap up business for the year, the Chemical Manufacturers Association and other industry trade groups are urging lawmakers to reject last-minute bids by special interests to win exemptions from cleanup liability under the Superfund law.
A compromise Superfund reform bill was expected to reach the House floor before the end of the session, but a continuing disagreement over how to fund cleanups is making a vote unlikely before adjournment.
Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.), chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, adamantly opposes reinstating excise taxes on chemical feedstocks and petroleum products to pay for Superfund cleanups. The tax expired in 1995.
"I'm opposed to raising taxes on people who were not connected to a hazardous waste site," said Rep. Archer. "This is a societal problem. All of us should be responsible for that."
Reps. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) and Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) had been pushing for the tax to complete waste site cleanups in exchange for Democratic support of legislation that seeks to reduce litigation, removes barriers to the redevelopment of brownfields, and protection for innocent businesses that get ensnared in lawsuits or unwarranted costs.
"We've got to find a way to pay for it," said Rep. Boehlert. "The leadership has assured me this will be a priority item for next year."
Although efforts to pass a comprehensive reform bill appeared dead for the year, industry officials are keeping close watch on attempts by scrap recyclers, municipalities and small businesses to obtain retroactive liability exemptions from Superfund.
"We are writing to express, in the strongest way possible, our unwavering opposition to any cost-shifting Superfund liability exemptions," CMA says in a letter to Congress endorsed by the American Insurance Association, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers.
"These proposals would directly shift hundreds of millions of dollars in liability annually to the remaining businesses that are left to pay the cleanup bills. The magnitude of this unfairness is truly enormous," the industry coalition writes.
In recent congressional testimony, EPA estimated that the total amount of liability represented by the proposed exemptions is roughly $500 million per year.
"Thus, over the next 10 years of the Superfund program, the unfunded exemptions would shift some $5 billion from companies that are liable under current law to other companies that have no responsibility for the contamination caused by the exempted parties," the coalition's letter says.
If Congress were to approve those exemptions, the end result would be a flood of new litigation, fewer settlements and slower cleanups, CMA and the other groups warn.
"Such a cost-shift would be equivalent to a large, new hidden tax on these businesses that could threaten their economic viability," the coalition indicates. "[It] would only make Superfund even more unfair than it already is."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has vowed to add a rider on behalf of the scrap recycling industry to a must-pass appropriations bill. According to government estimates, the exemption would save the scrap industry hundreds of millions of dollars in potential liability for cleaning up toxic waste sites.
Sen. Lott's rider would exempt the industry from all retroactive--as well as present and future--liability for cleaning up sites it has contaminated with lead, acid, mercury, PCBs and other pollutants that "pose a serious health threat to local residents," says California's Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.
"Under the liability carve-out rider, communities will have no hope of having the health threats cleaned up," the Center adds, charging that the bill would enable "scrap and trash dealers [to] doubly profit from their pollution."
Although Sen. Lott depicts the proposed rider as pro-environment, "nothing could be farther from the truth," the Center warns in a November 5 letter to President Clinton, EPA administrator Carol Browner and members of Congress. It charges that the rider "gives one sector of industry--a sector known for contaminated sites in inner cities across the US--a free ride from cleaning up after its pollution."
In urging the President to oppose the exemption for scrap recyclers, the Center says the measure would set a "dangerous precedent," particularly in the absence of comprehensive Superfund reform. "Already, other industries are lining up seeking their own carve-outs."
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