Study Questions Proposed Superfund Exemption for Municipalities

Published May 1, 1998

With Congress once again poised to miss an opportunity to overhaul the nation’s costly hazardous waste cleanup program, a Washington-based think tank contends that a key component of popular Superfund reform proposals is seriously flawed.

The idea of exempting municipalities from Superfund liability has caught on with lawmakers in both parties and has been inserted into several CERCLA reform bills pending in Congress. Such an exemption, however, would hinder real environmental reform, warns a study just released by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).

David Kopel, author of “Privileged Polluters: The Case Against Exempting Municipalities Against Superfund,” rejects exemptions for municipalities, arguing instead for a thorough overhaul of the unpopular statute.

“Superfund is widely regarded as the greatest failure of all federal environmental laws,” Kopel writes. “Modification to Superfund liability should at least be based on the scientific dangers of various types of waste, and not on which politically favored entities happen to be responsible for them.”

Kopel accuses local government officials of behaving like a typical special interest group, pushing for narrow exemptions for themselves rather than advocating comprehensive reform. “The argument for a municipal exemption is, at bottom, based on the premise that local governments should receive special treatment because government is virtuous and private business is not,” Kopel says.

The complaints that local government officials have about Superfund are shared by all who are subject to the law’s extreme liability regime, Kopel explains. Rather than exempt politically powerful interests, Congress should scrap Superfund altogether in favor of a more equitable and environmentally sound approach to the cleanup of hazardous waste sites.

CEI has long called for the complete reform of Superfund. A September 1997 CEI study, “Superfund XVII: The Pathology of Environmental Policy,” by James DeLong, was highly critical of Superfund reform proposals, arguing that meaningful reform must start with a complete overhaul of the statute. Such an overhaul would repeal the current law, transfer cleanup responsibilities to the states, and establish transition rules for sites already in the Superfund process. (See Environment News, January 1998.)