HAZWASTES: EPA Plans A Revision Of Cleanup Standards

Claiming that the Clinton Administration proposals will make the nation's waste cleanup program "faster, fairer and more efficient," Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Carol Browner has submitted a Superfund amendment package to Congress. The House Energy Subcommittee on Transportation and Hazardous Materials wasted no time conducting hearings on the measure, as Congress grapples with the task of controlling the costly Superfund program. Key reforms designed to speed up the program and cut costs include a set of national cleanup standards and a new method of assigning liability between potentially responsible parties (PRPs).

To clean up sites faster and more economically, Browner said, "We must decide once and for all: how clean is clean?" The Administration will answer this question by establishing national goals to protect health and the environment, then writing cleanup levels consistent with those goals. The cleanup standards, which will be set for contaminants most commonly found at sites, would vary depending on the use of the cleaned land.

Current standards requiring cleanups to comply with relevant and appropriate requirements "have proven to be a source of delay and expense in selecting remedies," said Browner. "They also have proven to be a significant cause of inconsistency in cleanup levels around the country. The national cleanup levels would provide much more consistency and ensure that cleanup standards are risk-based." EPA [plans to] issue a national risk protocol for conducting assessments at sites where such measures are still necessary.

Statutory language requiring EPA to seek permanent remedies that involve treating contamination rather than shifting it to a new disposal site would be eliminated. Instead, preference would be given to treating hot spots and achieving long-term reliability. The agency also would provide a menu of remedies to be used at certain sites without lengthy study.

The Administration's proposed system for allocating liability among responsible parties would curb legal wrangling, Browner said, and private litigation costs could be cut by more than 50 percent. The amendments will provide for a professional with Superfund expertise to allocate shares of responsibility among all identified parties at a site rather than going to court. The PRPs could then settle their liability and receive protection against future liability. Superfund would pay for costs allocated to PRPs who are no longer in business or who are unable to pay their share (orphan costs).

By paying an additional premium, PRPs would eliminate liability for potential problems arising from the cleanup work. A PRP could still go to court if it is unhappy with its apportioned liability. But if the PRP lost its case, it would have to pay its share of the cleanup cost, and a portion of the orphan costs and, in addition, would remain liable for the cleanup costs of any future contamination.

In response to those who have suggested that federal administrative judges allocate liability, Browner said that the Administration does not want to see the allocations process turn into a bureaucratic, "big government" solution.

An Environmental Insurance Resolution Fund, which would decrease litigation between PRPs and their insurers, would be created to settle insurance claims related to the cleanup of wastes disposed before 1986. The fund would be financed by an annual assessment of $500 to $600 million on casualty and property insurance firms. Other changes call for de micromis parties - those that contribute negligible amounts of waste to a site - to be exempt from liability. Caps would be placed on the liability of generators and transporters of municipal solid waste. Contributors of de minimis amounts of waste and those unable to pay their full share of cleanup costs would be provided an early opportunity to settle and receive protection from other suits.