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Superfund is an idea whose time has passed

MY VIEW • Do we really need federally mandated cleanups?

In 'Superfund's funding isn't so super' (Insight, Dec. 30), Lois Gibbs and Rhett Lawrence assert that the federal Superfund tax, which expired in 1995, should be renewed to pay for hazardous waste cleanup. They describe this tax as a 'polluter pays' approach to financing Superfund.

This is incorrect. The Superfund tax, originally enacted in 1980, was an assessment on producers of certain chemicals and petroleum products. The revenues were to be used to pay for cleanup of hazardous waste sites when responsible parties could not be identified or had insufficient resources.

However, it should be obvious that taxing a general industry for the sins of specific individuals is not a polluter-pays approach. The Superfund tax makes no more sense than taxing all wine consumers to pay for harm caused by drunk drivers. Individuals or specific organizations sometimes create problems; they alone should be held accountable for their behavior. Superfund already does this by making responsible parties strictly liable for contamination.

That said, before we make any decisions about tax policy, we should ask the more basic question: Why do we need Superfund at all? Most contaminated sites pose little immediate risk to either public health or the environment, and if problems do exist, they are local problems, not national ones. There is no rationale for federal involvement in this area.

Every state in the nation now has its own toxic waste cleanup program, and according to a federal audit, state environmental managers believe that many of these programs accomplish site cleanups 'more quickly and efficiently than Superfund.' That probably explains why virtually every local and state official working on the Portland harbor cleanup was opposed to its designation as a federal Superfund site.

In 1999, Gov. John Kitzhaber wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency after considerable work had been done by harbor property owners, the city of Portland and the state Department of Environmental Quality to draft a sediment management plan for contaminated areas. He wrote, 'The environmental progress being made at individual sites clearly indicates that a federal Superfund listing is not needed to achieve the desired environmental outcomes in Portland harbor.'

The EPA ignored this request and designated the harbor a Superfund site, immediately putting property owners on the defensive and undermining the spirit of cooperation necessary to tackle this complex project.

The Portland harbor is not an isolated example. The EPA is involved with hundreds of sites across the country that lack any national significance and where federal regulation is simply making cleanup more costly than it needs to be.

The federalization of environmental policy by Congress during the 1970s may have made some sense within the context of the times, but it's clear that this approach is no longer appropriate.

Complex, one-size-fits-all federal programs have become a barrier to environmental improvement. Congress should begin reversing this trend. Repealing Superfund would be an excellent place to start.

John Charles is environmental policy director at Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland think tank. He lives in rural Clackamas County.