Summary of "Toxic Debts and the Superfund Dilemma"

Summary of

Toxic Debts and the Superfund Dilemma

by Harold C. Barnett

Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Toxic Debts and the Superfund Dilemma, Harold C. Barnett, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 334 pp.

Toxic Debts will be of interest to those who seek an understanding of the impact of economic concerns on environmental regulation. This work is divided into ten chapters, with bibliography and index. The first chapter describes the author's methodology, and offers a synopsis of the subsequent chapters. In analyzing the causes of Superfund failure, the author emphasizes the economic foundations of political decisions, and explores the economic consequences of legislative and regulatory actions.

Chapters two and three explore the general conditions which led to the creation of Superfund. Chapter two describes the hazards associated with toxic wastes, and identifies those industries which are primarily responsible for creating the toxic debt. Chapter three argues that government regulation of environmental issues is "necessitated by the failure of markets to provide incentives for safe disposal" of hazardous wastes. Several models of regulatory activity are examined. Such models predict that the regulatory process will be a site of conflict between corporate and environmental interests.

Chapter four examines the congressional debate over issues of Superfund cleanup, liability, and victim compensation, with emphasis on the role played by conflict between corporate and environmental interests. Chapter five examines the role played by the states in implementing the Superfund act. It argues that "political decisions to impose substantial financial responsibilities on the states limits superfund potential." Chapter six examines the tensions within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), between the EPA headquarters and the regional offices. It also explores the impact of the availability of state cleanup resources on the regional EPA's regulatory and enforcement power.

Chapter seven examines the causes of Superfund failure through 1985, both in terms of internal program flaws, and external budgetary constraints. Chapter eight describes the debates surrounding the reauthorization of Superfund, and describes the "redesigned Superfund" which emerged from those debates. Chapter eight provides a critical evaluation of this redesigned Superfund via an analysis of EPA cleanup and enforcement decisions from both the Reagan EPA of 1986-1988, and the Bush EPA of 1989-1992. Chapter nine draws on this analysis to offer a general diagnosis of Superfund failure. The author contends that "the inability to resolve conflict over cleanup goals and the distribution of toxic debt has built significant contradictory elements into Superfund."

Chapter ten concludes that "the failure of Superfund to promote an efficient and equitable response to hazardous waste site threats is rooted in an inherent conflict over economic and environmental priorities." The author speculates on whether the costs of failing to deal with hazardous wastes will provide sufficient incentive to resolve such conflict.

Toxic Debts provides a thorough yet accessible analysis of the roots of Superfund failure.