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Responsibility of toxic-waste cleanup is moving to the states. Ballot questions in N.Y. and N.J. call for cleanup funds

While Congress and the White House continue to bicker over funding of the Superfund, there is a trend toward greater state responsibility in toxic-waste cleanup programs. Both New York and New Jersey have bond issues on their November ballots aimed specifically at the problem of hazardous wastes. In New York, voters will be asked to okay $1.45 billion in bonds that would clean up target waste sites, help municipalities close non-hazardous landfills, and fund land acquisition and historic preservation projects. New Jersey seeks approval for $200 million in bonds which are part of an estimated $1.5 billion cleanup effort.

``The center of gravity [in toxic-waste issues] is turning toward the states,'' says Margaret Mellon of the Environmental Law Institute in Washington. ``Preserving the environment is as important to the long term health of a state as anything. The nature of the problem is locally oriented.'' Paul Doyle, who tracks hazardous waste issues for the National Conference of State Legislators in Denver, says that bond issues like the ones in New York and New Jersey will become more commonplace as states realize that the federal government cannot take care of the entire problem.

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``State legislators are closer to the fire,'' says Mr. Doyle. ``And this is something that is not going to go away. No one knows what is going to happen to the federal program.''

Observers note that federal participation in battling toxic waste is still crucial, particularly in technical assistance. But the Superfund only targets the worst sites in each state, and most states have a much larger list of hazardous waste problem areas.

Doyle notes that though some 40 states have toxic waste programs, only California has passed a bond issue aimed at cleaning up such sites. In New York, though the proposed bond issue is substantial, a random sample of voters in New York City showed they knew little about it or were not even aware it was on the ballot.

The New York measure would target $1.2 billion for cleanup of sites, says Paul Crouse, executive director of the state Senate's committee on environmental conservation. Out of that amount, $100 million would be available to municipalities as non-interest bearing loans to close landfills. Land acquisition, mostly for park lands, will come from $250 million set aside for such purposes.

The debt service for the general obligation bonds will be paid through state general taxes and industry fees. Each year, a list of projects for annual appropriations will have to be approved by the state legislature.

``We are not just writing a blank check,'' says Mr. Crouse. Estimates are that it will take 13 years to clean up the sites in New York state, but Crouse says that is extremely ambitious.

The federal Superfund has targeted 29 sites in the state, but there are nearly 1,000 hazardous waste sites listed by the Department of Environmental Conservation. Not all of those have been investigated. Crouse estimates that perhaps 300 sites will require cleanup. There is no specific list in the bill itself.

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One reason the state decided to go for the large bond issue is that a state ``superfund'' created in 1982 has not yielded the necessary funds to address the problem, says Crouse.

Originally Gov. Mario M. Cuomo had targeted 1987 for a bond issue, and there is some grumbling that pushing the bonds ahead may mean the numbers ``might not be right.''

Dr. Mellon argues that the important aspect of the New York bill is that it has attempted to figure out how much is needed over a sustained period of time.

``That is extremely important,'' says Mellon. ``Not that many states have done that.''

There was also a debate over whether the state should ``pay as you go'' rather than take on the $1.45 billion bond obligation. ``But the real issue is getting the sites cleaned up,'' says Crouse.

In New Jersey, the $200 million in bonds will not be sold until an entire package is enacted, says a legislative aide there.

One component would increase the base and raise the taxes of the state's Spill Compensation and Control Act.

The state would also dedicate monies gained from federal tax reform for hazardous discharge cleanup. These components would combine with fines levied on industries responsible for spills and federal Superfund monies to complete the package.

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