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Sinking of the Superfund


THIRTEEN years ago, a mechanism was put in place to force polluters in the United States to pay for the cleanup of their own toxic legacy. The so-called Superfund was hailed as a victory not only for the environment, but for the taxpayer, who would no longer be obliged to absorb the high costs of environmentally unsound practices. Now, according to an Associated Press review, Superfund appears to have failed in its quest for environmental justice. And once again, the taxpayer is the loser.

Due to a combination of factors, including employee shortages at the Environmental Protection Agency and the disappearance or bankruptcy of many polluters, the government has collected only $843 million over the 13 years, less than one-fifth the possible recoverable fines under the Superfund program.

Already, $270 million has simply been written off, which means the money for clean-up, if there is to be a cleanup, will have to be supplied by taxpayers. According to one Superfund program analyst, the EPA is prepared to write off another $170 million in 1994. Next year, the statute of limitations expires in more than 300 pending cases involving $670 million. The EPA says it can pursue only half of these cases. Some $2.3 billion of the remaining total -- more than half -- reportedly will not be pursued.

The Superfund crisis has reached such dramatic proportions that litigating cases involving settlements of less than $200,000 is considered unfeasible because of high legal fees.

Standing amid the ruins of this progressive system, we are forced to ask once again a question Superfund was supposed to answer: Who should pay the costs of environmental cleanup?

The health of our economy is predicated on the availability of a wide range of cheap consumer goods and services. Unfortunately, the retail price of a consumer item is often no true indication of its total cost to consumers. When the full environmental costs resulting from the manufacture of these goods are factored into the equation, they are no longer so cheap.

The necessity of maintaining a pollution-control bureaucracy, litigation and cleanup routinely raises the cost of a product. Add this to the tax-supported maintenance of infrastructure and generous tax loopholes for many industries, and consumers end up paying for a product several times over.

Polluters know this, and make it the foundation of both their accounting and marketing. In difficult economic times, we are tempted to sweep hidden environmental costs under the rug. States with lax regulatory standards become attractive locations for businesses seeking to keep profit margins intact in the face of regulation. When businesses relocate, environmental standards are attacked as a threat to full employment, and a grotesque price-war ensues, with states and cities bidding to undercut one another's worst environmental offer.

In a closed system like the biosphere, nothing stays hidden forever. Nuclear waste, PCBs and dioxins are dangerous for many more years than the average stint of a corporate director or term of a politician. Those who suffer the effects of exposure to hazardous wastes may know those responsible only from history books. Superfund's six-year statute of limitations, while no doubt realistic from the economic standpoint, is absurd from a biological point of view.

Besides the direct health risks from toxic chemicals and the economic burden unfairly placed on taxpayers, we must include the ethical precedent set by a government that can't afford to enforce its own laws. In this way, pollution reaches even into the spirit of a community. That toxic dumping is known to be more prevalent in poorer, minority communities only increases the risk that an environmental challenge may become an incendiary of bitter class and racial tension.

In the long term, the only real solution is to invest heavily in the development of environmentally sound products and manufacturing processes. In the short term, weak local and state regulations must give way to tough national standards that match or surpass the most progressive legislation in the states that have been serious about pollution. As long as "friendly to business" means "lax environmental laws," economic growth will be pitted spuriously against environmental health, and we will continue to pay for the arrogance of dirty industries.

The question is not whether there should be environmental costs, but who should carry them. Pollution will always seek the lowest level of regulatory vigilance. And nothing offers a more inviting place to dump than a deep, dark hole in regulatory law, dug at public expense.

Jean-Michel Cousteau writes a syndicated column.

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