'Brownfields' Bill Stymied in Senate

Tuesday, October 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — GOP presidential hopeful George W. Bush has made cleaning up moderately contaminated urban land a top environmental issue, but a bill to help do that has been blocked for months in Congress because of opposition from the Senate's top Republican.

At campaign stops and during recent debates, Bush has praised government efforts to clean up ``brownfields'' and said that as president he would press Congress to speed up the restoration of these sites, many in economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods. Democratic rival Al Gore has vowed to do the same.

Ironically, a behind-the-scenes ``horse-trade'' between two GOP senators — one seeking to assure passage of one of his favorite bills, and another out to protect powerful constituents back home — appears to have undermined just that kind of legislation in the current Congress.

There are tens of thousands of brownfield sites around the country and a Senate bill would provide increased spending — as much as $150 million a year — for restoration programs. More importantly, its supporters say, the bill would ensure that developers willing to build on the sites would have modest cleanup costs and would be insulated from future lawsuits under the federal Superfund toxic waste law.

But the bill has been in legislative limbo for months even though it has the support of the Clinton administration and is sponsored by no fewer than 67 senators, including 28 Republicans.

The bill's sponsors complain that Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., won't allow the bill to come up for a vote because of a promise he made in secret to another GOP lawmaker, Idaho Sen. Michael Crapo, last November in what has surfaced as a classic example of legislative horse-trading.

At the time Lott wanted — and received — Crapo's assurance that he would not try to block a bill that would exempt scrap metal recyclers from Superfund requirements. An old college chum, now in the metal scrap business, had lobbied Lott on the issue and the majority leader gave it top priority.

Congress passed the scrap metal bill with broad bipartisan support four days after Lott wrote a letter to Crapo outlining the agreement. In return for Crapo not interfering in the scrap metal bill, Lott promised to ``use the privilege of my position as majority leader to ensure ... no brownfields proposal ... will be allowed to be considered or acted upon by the Senate during this Congress.''

As 67 senators this week stepped up pressure on Lott to bring the brownfields bill to a vote, Crapo also pressed Lott to stand by his word, according to congressional sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. Lott has told colleagues he does not intend to allow a vote on the measure in the final week of this Congress unless Crapo's concerns are addressed.

``Bush calls this one of the leading environmental issues, and the top Republican in the Senate is blocking it. I find it preposterous,'' Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a key sponsor of the brownfields bill, said in an interview.

A spokesman for the Bush campaign said the Texas governor, if elected president, would seek liability protection for developers of brownfield sites, but that Bush has not followed the current brownfield debate in Congress.

``As a rule the governor has not gotten involved in ongoing congressional legislative maneuvering,'' Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan said.

Crapo has not commented on Lott's letter.

His spokeswoman, Susan Wheeler, said Monday that the senator continued to oppose any ``piecemeal'' legislation to deal with narrow problems with the Superfund law. As you ``peel away the issues'' one by one it reduces the chance of a comprehensive overhaul of the 1980 law, she said.

But many Democratic and Republican senators who support the legislation contend that Crapo has another agenda: protecting Idaho mining interests who are facing huge Superfund cleanup costs unless the basic law — not just brownfields provisions — is dramatically changed.

Specifically, they say, a comprehensive overhaul is the only way Crapo likely can get changes in the current law that allows for huge damages for destruction of natural resources — lakes, steams or wetlands, for example — because of past toxic waste disposal.

One of the largest Superfund sites in the country is in northern Idaho as a result of widespread contamination of the Coeur d'Alene River Basin after more than a century of silver mining and smelting.

Although more than $200 million has been spent to clean up the core area of contamination around the mines and smelters, much larger cleanup costs could face mining companies if the government pursues compensation for natural resource destruction.


On the Net:

The EPA's Superfund program site: http://www.epa.gov/superfund/programs/index.htm