Public works, city management: yin and yang
Superfund policy could benefit local governments
Like the trade that sent Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees for $100,000 or the duet between Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, Superfund was a good idea in principal that just, let’s be honest here, stunk in practice. Most of the cleaning up that occurred was accomplished by the lawyers, not the communities that sat on or next to toxic waste sites.
In fact, in the 16 years since the law that created Superfund was passed, EPA has spent more than $15 billion to clean up fewer than 100 of the almost 1,400 sites on the national priority list. Much of that – some say upwards of 80 percent – went to the lawyers.
This year, as in virtually every one of the last 15 years, Superfund reform talk is in the air. Unlike those of previous years, however, the prospects for 1997 look promising, especially for local governments, who have borne a not insignificant share of the cleanup burden.
One positive sign is a draft policy, recently published by EPA in the Federal Register, that would eliminate most of the litigation aimed by polluters at cities and counties that own and operate landfills on the Superfund list. The original law set out a formula for determining Potentially Responsible Parties, and a number of polluters have used that to haul cities and counties into court to force them to assume the financial burden of cleanup. Operating on the theory that the more a local government pays, the less they pay, these polluters brought actions against more than 750 cities, counties, towns and school districts in attempts to limit their own liability. (When they failed in court, a number of them simply declared bankruptcy.)
But now the cities and counties appear to have both Congress and the White House on their side. “If we are to amend the Superfund bill this year, we must not add greater burdens on taxpayers in order to remove burdens from the shoulders of responsible polluters,” said Republican Senator Frank Lautenberg in introducing the GOP’s reform bill.
EPA’s draft policy has been cheered by the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, U.S. Conference of Mayors, International City/County Management Association and the National Association of Towns and Townships.
All are encouraging their members to send written comments to EPA supporting the new policy. The deadline is August 25.