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Toward Faster Cleanup

AFTER a decade of reaching for the ideal, the nation's Superfund program is on the verge of achieving the practical.

As a start, the Clinton administration is set this week to propose revisions to the Superfund program that are aimed at reducing the time and cost of cleanup. Broadly speaking, the revisions affect the determination of liability, the level of cleanup needed, and financing in ways that encourage companies to spend less time and money in court and more in the field removing pollution from designated sites.

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The need for the Superfund program is unquestionable. The goal is to get corporations to pay for the cleanup of toxic wastes and other pollutants that they have dumped. The US Environmental Protection Agency has put nearly 1,300 sites on its priority list. Yet as a special report on Page 8 of today's edition points out, only 56 have been cleaned, while cleanup-related construction has started on some 200 others. During this period, the federal government has spent $7.7 billion and companies $6.3 billion on Superfund activities - much of it in the courtroom arm-wrestling over which of several companies is liable for what portion of the cleanup cost.

Among the revisions that bring a measure of common sense:

* Instead of demanding that each site be cleaned as if it were to be used for housing, a lower standard will be applied to industrial areas than to residential sites. This could help bring some urban tracts back into productive use faster and relieve some pressure to build manufacturing sites on undeveloped land. Local community groups would be given a say in determining the cleanup process.

* To induce urban investment, the revision would exempt from liability those creditors who are lending money to investors trying to develop potential Superfund sites.

* To cut time and expense, the proposal would give polluting companies the option of submitting to binding arbitration to allocate cleanup costs. This avoids long, costly suits and countersuits; loosens liability rules a bit; has the federal government picking up the tab if a company can't pay its share of the cost.

In its outline, the administration's proposed revisions leave some unresolved issues. Cleaning a site appropriate to use, for example, is reasonable. Yet given the way urban zoning evolves, today's industrial site may be condominiums 10 or 20 years later.

Still, the White House plan represents a good start at making a badly needed program more effective.

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