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There has been one hearing on the chief Senate Superfund reform bill, and the Clinton administration already is digging in its heels and is refusing to support even modest liability reform, let alone repeal of the controversial environmental cleanup program's imposition of retroactive liability.

Instead, the administration wants reformers to go back to square one.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner said as much last week during an appearance before the Senate panel charged with drafting Superfund reauthorization. She asked the senators to "get everyone together, pull out a blank sheet of paper and draft a Superfund reform bill that recognizes the progress that we've made, addresses the remaining problems and sets the program on the right course for the future."

That's exactly the wrong course for reform. Reformers have been forced to go back to square one too many times as the last two Congresses proved unable to pass any sort of Superfund reauthorization bill.

Pro-reform forces repeatedly have proved willing to compromise in order to reach consensus with the administration, only to have the administration trot out its tired jibe that liability reform is little more than "letting polluters off the hook." We can certainly sympathize with Sen. John Chafee's polite request that Ms. Browner take that phrase, "bottle it and throw it away."

The idea that it's time to grab a blank piece of paper and draft a brand-new Superfund bill also ought to be thrown out as quickly as possible. Congress has wrestled with Superfund for far too long as it is. To start all over again would guarantee nothing except an even longer wait for reauthorization and reform.

Instead, risk managers, insurers and business in general should urge both the Senate and the House to move, and move now, on reform. The only current vehicle for reform, the Senate Republican leadership's Superfund Cleanup Acceleration Act, admittedly proposes far less reform than we would like to see. If it became law, retroactive liability would remain largely intact. But it would get rid of much of the imposition of joint and several liability, and it would inject a needed dose of good sense into remedy selection. Enactment of those two reforms alone would go a long way toward making Superfund more equitable.

Instead of reaching for the blank sheet of paper, supporters of reform ought to make clear that the Senate bill embodies the minimum degree of liability reform they will accept. Further reforms can and should be incorporated as the reform effort passes to square two, three and beyond. That offers the only possible chance that the next Congress won't be debating the same tired issues and listening to the same tired phrases come 1999.