President Clinton's Superfund environmental cleanup plan has sparked criticism by a group that includes some of the country's most prominent polluters, but the problem isn't Clinton's affinity for environmentalism. These business leaders are joining the ranks of environmentalists who claim that the president isn't green enough. In fact, one of the industry representatives describes Clinton's plan as "pro-business."
It's a surprising situation that has some environmentalists feeling betrayed by the Clinton administration and suspicious of the motives of these newly green CEOs.
At issue is a 14-month-long series of meetings by the National Commission on Superfund, an unlikely coalition of 25 business, environmental and community leaders, brought together in the Colorado mountains by the Keystone Center and the Vermont Law School. The 1980 Superfund law, up for reauthorization this year, has been widely criticized for soaring legal costs and inconsistent cleanups. In Colorado, only two of eighteen sites have been cleaned up since the law was enacted, and toxic sites like the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal often dominate the news. The commission's task: to agree on how to fix Superfund.
Armed with years of hostility, representatives from companies including Amoco, Monsanto and the FMC mining corporation went head to head at the Keystone Center (a "public-policy forum" funded by industries) with activists living near hazardous waste sites, national environmental groups like the Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Fund, and municipal and tribal leaders. The result was not bloodshed, but a 78-page consensus proposal for reforming the Superfund law.
The proposal urges a new system for deciding on cleanup remedies, would discourage lawsuits among polluters to determine who's responsible for cleanup and would encourage development of new cleanup and containment technology. Participants tout the proposal as costing no more money than what's already being spent.
"It was a bitter, contentious process," says Susan Thornton, former mayor of Littleton and commission participant. "The question was whether we were going to have any progress at all or sit in our corners and keep shooting at each other."
Eventually, everyone stopped shooting and the commission released its proposal last December. Clinton's plan, released at the beginning of February, is nearly twice the length of the commission document. But the president's plan remains silent on issues such as groundwater treatment standards and inadequate cleanup efforts in poor communities. It's sketchy on details for determining liability and funding, and, according to a commission critique, it doesn't go far enough to ensure public participation at every stage of the cleanup process.
"Our view was that the commission plan was a reasonable starting point for debate," says Sierra Club official A. Blakeman Early, "and our biggest disappointment is that's not what the Clinton administration chose to adopt as a starting point. There were a lot of concessions and compromises made in forming the commission proposal, and now there's a widespread attitude in the administration and Congress that we have to compromise more."
Commission participants were so happy with their work that its industry members, liable to get a better deal under Clinton's proposal, decided to stick by the commission's proposal, according to panelist Sue Briggum, director of government affairs for WMX Technologies Inc. (formerly Waste Management, one of the largest garbage haulers in the country).
"The businesses [in the commission] have been absolutely faithful to the proposals," she says. "Even though the administration decided to do a pro-business bill, we've committed to continuing to work together to convince people that this is a fair way to represent everyone's interests.
"In the end, when we had consensus, people looked at the proposal and said, `My God, this is not what the business community is going to want.'"
But while the companies involved in crafting the commission's solution put out a positive public-relations vibe, environmentalists wonder if it's anything more than lip service designed to distract activists.
A list of the Keystone Center's backers includes such companies as Dow Chemical, Arco, Amoco and Shell Oil. Activists in Washington eco-circles are speculating, says Early, that businesses involved in the commission are more excited about the public-relations coup of sharing a panel with--and mollifying--environmentalists than they are about the commission's Superfund reform package.
"Companies out there realize that it would be tough to legislate in an expeditious fashion if they're facing opposition from the environmental community," he says. The Sierra Club was asked to participate in the commission, but Early says the group did not have the resources, and was put off by the lack of community activists and minorities on the panel--a situation that later was rectified.
Early's suspicions are reasonable, says Philip Angell, assistant to the chairman of Browning Ferris Industries, Inc. While he insists that the companies involved are "rallying around the commission's proposals," Angell adds that there are likely to be huge compromises as Clinton's bill moves through committee.
"Both proposals are designed to make cleanups more efficient and speedier--it's not an either-or matter of supporting one or the other," he says. "Are people working hard to reach a compromise [on the two plans]? You bet. Is it going to happen? People seem positive about it, but you never know. There's a lot of strange dynamics going on on Capitol Hill."
The two biggest differences between Clinton's bill and the commission's proposal, many people agree, revolve around remedy selection and liability determination.
"`Remedy selection' is Superfund-speak for how much gets cleaned up and how do we do it," says Kevin Curtis, a lobbyist with the Keystone Center's D.C. office. Under the commission proposal, the EPA would get a formula for establishing cleanup levels for the 100 most frequently occurring pollutants, and would have to develop comprehensive cleanup plans effective from site to site. Clinton's proposal urges development of such standards, but leaves in place the more costly site-by-site assessment process.
The other big sticking point is who becomes liable. The current law allows for one company to be held responsible for 100 percent of the cleanup costs at a site, even in places with multiple polluters. Companies have solved this problem by suing each other, often over and over again, to the point where one-third of money spent on Superfund sites goes to litigation costs, according to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Under the commission proposal, an independent "allocator" would determine each polluter's responsiblity, and the polluters would get one chance to challenge the ruling--with high fines facing those who challenge and lose. Clinton's plan, on the other hand, gives polluters free reign to continue suing as much as they want.
Clinton's proposal is slated to save private parties involved in Superfund sites--including industry polluters--$500 million a year, according to an assistant to EPA chief Carol Browner. Despite this savings, all commission participants, including the businesses, claim to be sticking with the commission's proposal. BFI's Angell contends that differences in cleanup costs aren't that important--the costs will be passed on to consumers anyway.
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Clinton's proposal has been introduced in bill form in both the Senate and the House, and legislators are expected to go through the first round of committee votes at the end of this month.
Curtis, the Keystone Center's lobbyist, is peddling the commission's proposal to legislators with the "highly ambitious goal" of passing an amended form of Clinton's bill by the end of the year. If no bill is passed, the program will grind to a halt as money runs out.
And time is running out. Representative Al Swift, a Democrat from Washington state who chairs the House energy subcommittee on transportation and hazardous materials, told reporters last week that an agreement had to be reached by the end of the month: "We're either going to mark the bill up in April, or we're going to bury it.