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WASHINGTON-A key player in the House Superfund reauthorization debate wants the House to vote on reform legislation this fall.

"For the first time, I feel at least some momentum" toward reform, said Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, and chairman of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Finance and Hazardous Materials.

Rep. Oxley noted that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner has assured him that the Clinton administration is committed to getting Superfund reauthorized during the current Congress. The administration did in fact release its principles for Superfund reauthorization a day after Rep. Oxley's remarks, though those principles demonstrated little if any change in the White House position (see story, page 11).

No comprehensive reform has been introduced in the House thus far this year, though the Senate Republican leadership introduced its own bill early in the session (BI, March 10).

"Under the best of circumstances, I'd like to get a bill to the floor sometime this fall," said Rep. Oxley.

Rep. Oxley made his observation last week during a discussion of a proposal to simplify Superfund offered by former EPA Assistant Administrator J. Winston Porter.

The discussion was sponsored by the Reason Public Policy Institute, a Los Angeles-based libertarian think tank.

But neither Rep. Oxley nor Mr. Porter, who is now president of Leesburg, Va.-based consulting and research organization Waste Policy Center, indicated how much liability relief would be contained in the as yet undrafted House Superfund reform bill.

"I would like to get past sloganeering," said Rep. Oxley, adding that he believes Superfund's liability system "all along has been badly flawed." But he said he has not talked recently to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, who said earlier this year that he would not support reauthorizing the taxes that pay for Superfund unless the liability system undergoes a complete overhaul (BI, Feb. 10).

"We hope to be able to satisfy him," said Rep. Oxley. "He hasn't laid down a bright line" regarding how much liability reform would be required before Rep. Archer would back reauthorizing the Superfund taxes, said Rep. Oxley.

Mr. Porter, who had responsibility for administering the Superfund program during President Reagan's second term, said that liability reform would have to be approached carefully. Mr. Porter said he would not like to see reform undo existing cleanup agreements and said the questions of joint and several liability deal in large part with "water over the dam."

Instead of focusing on liability, Mr. Porter's simplification stresses cutting cleanup times and streamlining the Superfund process, mainly by giving states a larger role.

More than 40 states already have a Superfund-type program in place, Mr. Porter noted, adding that states tend to get sites cleaned up more quickly than the federal government.

States have a natural advantage over the federal program because sites typically only cover a few acres, the state governments are closer to the communities involved and have a better grasp of the land-use concerns, Mr. Porter said.

But Mr. Porter stressed that only states that were capable and willing to assume cleanup authority should receive it. He predicted that larger states would be more likely to seek that authority than their smaller counterparts.

Sites where cleanup is already under way should not be transferred to state control, Mr. Porter added.

He also called for shortening the process required to get Superfund cleanup under way.

The number of reports and amount of documentation required before action commences should be drastically reduced, so that the emphasis would fall on cleanup options. EPA "micromanagement" of sites must end as well, he said.

"The EPA and the states have become the project engineers on the site, not the regulators," he said.

Reducing the number of potentially responsible parties for Superfund cleanups, though "not critical," would enhance cleanup efficiency, Mr. Porter said.

He recommended that parties responsible for less than 1% of the hazardous waste at a site be exempted.

Three "key implementation issues" would have to be resolved for this simplification process to work, Mr. Porter explained.

The first is whether legislative and/or administrative changes would be needed to affect reform. He stressed the "and/or" portion of the issue, suggesting that a mix of both approaches would be required.

The second issue is determining exactly which sites would be turned over to the states.

The third issue, which he considered the most important, is deciding "if and when you transfer sites to the states, how does the money flow?"

The issue of who would pay what costs remains unclear, he said.