Brownfields/Superfund Bill Clears House Hurdle; Chairman Shuster Champions Conference Priority Through Transportation Panel
By Kevin McCarty
Chairman Bud Shuster (PA), joined by other key panel leaders, led Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to an unprecedented 69-2 vote, approving a bipartisan agreement to reform the nation's Superfund law and help cities cleanup and redevelop brownfield sites.
The action took place August 5, just before the scheduled Summer recess, setting the stage for action this Fall on the legislation, which has been a top Conference priority for several years.
The Committee gave its final approval to the bipartisan agreement on H.R. 1300, the "Recycle America's Land Act," following adoption of a substitute amendment authored by Representatives Robert Borski (PA) and Sherwood Boehlert (NY), the legislation's original sponsor.
Conference President and Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb praised the panel leaders for their bipartisan agreement. "Chairman Shuster, Representatives Oberstar, Boehlert and Borski are to be commended for their leadership. Their efforts again show how bipartisan action and responsible action can solve problems before the nation," Webb said.
Acknowledging how H.R. 1300 will help communities recycle brownfields and combat sprawl, Webb said, "This is the first installment in a broader national effort to help us grow smarter and make wiser use of the nation's land resources."
Among the key features of the bill are revisions to current liability rules to protect innocent parties who clean up and redevelop brownfields. H.R. 1300 also authorizes grants to help cities and others undertake assessments and cleanups of brownfields, protects state authority to set rules governing cleanups at non-Superfund sites including brownfields and provides Superfund liability relief for municipalities, small businesses and recyclers at Superfund sites.
In discussing the landmark agreement, Shuster said, "This is a common sense approach to clean up America. Acre upon acre of land will be cleaned up."
Speaking to his colleagues before the vote, Shuster emphasized that "We have accomplished, indeed, a bipartisan product." He expressed optimism that "we can achieve legislation this year."
Borski praised Shuster and the Committee leaders for their efforts on the legislation, calling Representative Jim Oberstar (MN) "the most effective committee ranking member" and Shuster "the most effective chairman in the House." Borski also pointed out that "Brownfields is crucial. This legislation is a top priority of the Conference of Mayors." He also explained how the legislation would "reduce pressure on developing farmlands and open space."
Acknowledging EPA Administrator Browner and her stewardship of the Superfund program, Oberstar said that he was "pleased to support this reauthorization." He also praised Shuster for his partnership in working to craft a bipartisan agreement.
Boehlert, whose earlier efforts helped facilitate the bipartisan agreement, emphasized that the legislation shifts the focus of current law from "litigation and lawyers to cleanup and communities." He praised the efforts of the broad and diverse coalition of interests backing the legislative effort, citing the Conference of Mayors' work on the legislation.
In a statement on the agreement, Boehlert praised key Democrats who joined with him early in the process to craft a bipartisan consensus. "I would like to extend a special thanks to Congressman Cal Dooley (CA) and my good friend on the Committee, Congressman Jim Barcia (MI). These two colleagues have been working with me for two Congresses now on Superfund reform and they stood strong when times were darkest."
Boehlert, who chairs the Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment, secured a 22-9 vote in June, approving an earlier version of the legislation. At the full Committee, eight of the nine Members that voted against the legislation at that time supported the final Committee version of H.R. 1300.
Bipartisanship Defines Shuster Panel
The action by the House Transportation panel, which has the largest number of Members in the history of the Congress, is particularly important given this Committee's bipartisan tradition and impressive legislative record. In announcing the agreement on H.R. 1300, Shuster pointed out that of the 39 bills signed into law during the 106th Congress, 11 of these originated in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. With the expected enactment of the Water Resources bill, his Committee will account for nearly one third of all legislative accomplishments in the 106th Congress.
In addition to H.R. 1300, legislation which provides a bipartisan vision for breaking a 6-8 year Congressional impasse on Superfund reform and related brownfields issues, Shuster led a bipartisan effort in June, resulting in the overwhelmingly House approval of a multi-year aviation bill, called "AIR-21" (see related story on page 6).
Mayors Tout Bill's Benefits
In commenting on the bipartisan agreement, Conference Past President and Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke said, "America is doing a great job of recycling glass, paper and aluminum cans. This legislation will help us recycle our land, by reclaiming the many thousands of brownfields all across the nation." Helmke during his tenure as Conference President had brought the organization in a partnership with Rep. Boehlert to seek a bipartisan agreement on these issues.
Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, who is a Co-chair of the Conference's Brownfields Task Force, said, "We have had great success in my city in recycling brownfields. This legislation will help all cities and their efforts to return these sites to productive use."
Focusing on the need to recycle urban land and preserve farmland, Brownfields Task Force Co-chair and Cedar Rapids Mayor Lee R. Clancey said, "There is a lot of talk and real concern about the loss of nation's farmland and open space. Mayors, in big cities and small one, believe enactment of this bipartisan agreement is something that we can, and must do, to address this national problem."
Features of H.R. 1300
The new agreement on H.R. 1300 left virtually unchanged a number of key provisions of interest to cities and other local governments seeking to redevelop brownfields. Liability protections are extended to a number of parties involved in acquiring and cleaning up brownfields sites.
First, prospective purchasers (i.e. public and private parties) who buy property after the date of enactment and exercise appropriate care are protected from federal liability. Innocent landowners who did not cause or contribute to contamination at these sites and participated in brownfields redevelopment before the date of enactment are protected from federal liability. Contiguous landowners (i.e. sites adjoining contaminated properties where pollution migrates onto their property) are protected from federal liability. Local governments are provides special liability relief for brownfield properties that were previously acquired in the course of exercising governmental functions.
For the first time, federal funds are specifically authorized to provide grants to cities and other public entities to conduct assessments of sties (i.e. up to $200,000 per site) and to provide grants for the establishment of revolving funds for brownfield cleanups (i.e. up to $1 million per city or other recipient in any given year). H.R. 1300 does not specify the annual authorization for funding these activities, vesting appropriators with the authority to provide "such sums as necessary."
H.R. 1300 clearly delineates federal and state authority over cleanups of non-Superfund sites, with U.S. EPA's enforcement authority limited to emergency situations after a state cleanup. Resources are provides to bolster state cleanup programs and to support comprehensive ground water protection plans.
It includes new provisions to provide for institutional controls where remedies at sites are based on restricted uses of land, water and other resources, with such controls tracked and publicized. New right-to-know provisions are added to support community involvement in site cleanups and advise local parties about releases from Superfund sites.
Among the key municipal provisions affecting cleanups of Superfund sites, H.R. 1300 provides a cap on liability for municipal owners of landfills where municipal waste was codisposed with hazardous wastes at Superfund sites. Smaller communities (i.e. under 100,000 in population) are capped at 10 percent of site cleanup costs and larger communities are capped at 20 percent.
In addition, liability exemptions are provided to entities generating and disposing of ordinary garbage and sewage sludge. Innocent cities and other governmental entities are given liability protection in operating sewage treatment plants and taking actions to protect their drinking water from abandoned mine runoff.
Small businesses meeting the bill's thresholds are granted a liability exemption for cleanup costs at such sites. In addition, the bill provides a liability exemption for parties sending scrap materials to legitimate recycling facilities, including scrap metal, batteries and used oil recycled in accordance with EPA regulations.
On some of the broader Superfund financing issues, H.R. 1300 provides for a total commitment of about $10 billion for Superfund cleanup through Fiscal Year 2007, financing the cleanup at the nation's most contaminated sites through the extension and phase-out of federal excise taxes on certain feedstock chemicals. Historically, Superfund cleanups have largely been funded through these taxes, which expired in 1995; residual Trust Fund balances are now expected to run out within the next two years.
Next Steps for H.R. 1300
With the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee action, H.R. 1300 is now before two other House Committees. The House Ways and Means Committee is responsible for acting on the tax provisions of the bill. The House Commerce Committee shares jurisdiction with the House Transportation Committee on the many other non-tax provisions of the bill. A House Commerce Subcommittee opened its hearings on H.R. 1300 and other pending legislation on August 4, where Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke presented testimony on behalf of the Conference of Mayors (see adjoining box).
Awaiting action by these other Committees, the Conference is continuing to urge mayors to contact their House delegations to request further cosponsorship of H.R. 1300. As of August 5, the start of the Congressional August Recess, a broad bipartisan group of more than 120 House Members had already signed on as cosponsors of H.R. 1300.
Senate Panel Looks to House Action
On the day before Shuster's panel acted on H.R. 1300, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, led by Chairman John Chafee (RI), suspended further work on a pending brownfields/Superfund reform bill, S. 1090, legislation which parallels H.R. 1300 in many respects. At the Committee's working session, Chafee said, "What is next? First, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will report a bipartisan Superfund bill tomorrow. I wish them success in guiding the bill through the other Committees with jurisdiction over Superfund as well as the full House. I will monitor progress in the House carefully. The House may well produce a widely-supported bill that merits our consideration." He added further that he believes that a narrow reform bill like S. 1090 is "the way to go."