WASHINGTON : Lenders Seek Exemption From Law on Cleanup of Toxic Wastes

The price tag for cleaning up the nation’s toxic-waste sites is rising into the billions, and banks and thrifts are seeking relief from strict laws that hold them accountable for some of the costs if they foreclose on contaminated land. Federal regulators are worried too, because taking over failed institutions has occasionally left them the owners of such sites.

Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, is trying to ride to their rescue with legislation to exempt lenders from the cost of cleaning up a Superfund site that they inherited, as long as they didn’t create the mess.

The bill (S.2319) would provide immunity for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Resolution Trust Corp. and commercial lenders from the liability they might incur under the Superfund Act after foreclosing on a property or acting as its fiduciary.

If the lender or agency caused the environmental problem, of course, the exemption would not apply.


“These looming liabilities already are affecting the RTC’s ability to market failed institutions and their assets, and they are threatening to sidetrack funds earmarked to resolve the thrift crisis,” Garn said.

Garn claimed that the bill would complement and support the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989, without adversely affecting the Superfund Act.

Environmental groups are expected to oppose the legislation because they don’t want to let the banks off the hook.

Bill Would Get Rid of More Billboards

We’ve all heard of environmental legislation. But aesthetic legislation is something new.

Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) has introduced legislation to reform the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, to ban new billboards along federal highways and give states power to remove existing signs.

The original act, passed at the urging of Lady Bird Johnson when her husband was in the White House, has been battered by a series of industry-backed challenges. Although that law was designed to control billboards, Chafee said it has become “so watered down” that the only group still supporting it is the billboard industry.

“Billboards have a tremendous impact on neighborhoods, and therefore neighborhoods should have the ability to regulate them,” Chafee said. “Billboards are a public health issue, particularly when young people are exposed to alcohol and tobacco advertisements.”


Chafee’s bill has the endorsement of Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmore, president of the National Conference of Mayors, and Alberta Tinsley-Williams, a county commissioner from Detroit. Tinsley-Williams said that in Detroit’s poor, black neighborhoods, 60% of the billboard advertising is for cigarettes or alcohol.

Chafee’s Visual Pollution Control Act of 1990 (S.2500) would impose a moratorium on the construction of billboards and it would allow states and municipalities to decide whether to remove existing roadway advertising along those highways. It also would prohibit the cutting of trees and vegetation along Interstate and primary highway systems. And it would require each state to create and maintain an inventory of existing billboards along the federal highways.

According to Scenic America, a group supporting the bill, the typical billboard was 15 feet tall in 1965 and totaled 300 square feet. Today’s version stands 50 feet tall, often on a platform, and splashes its message across 672 square feet. According to a study by the General Accounting Office, for every billboard taken down, three go up.

The Outdoor Advertising Assn. has called the bill unconstitutional. Chafee acknowledges that it will be difficult to overcome the opposition, and he does not expect it to pass this year. It has been referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.


Firms Are Investing Heavily in Senators

Business and industry are investing heavily in senators, says a new study by a citizen’s watchdog group.

Nearly half the senators each received almost $1 million in campaign contributions from various political action committees during the most recent six-year reporting period.

The study was prepared by Common Cause, which has lobbied for legislation to curb individual PAC contributions and establish an overall limit for the total number of PAC contributions a candidate can accept.


Business PACs contributed most of their money, $34.4 million out of $58.2 million, to Republicans while labor PACs spent most of theirs, $12.8 million of $14.3 million, on Democrats.

The nation’s battered financial industry has faced lots of legislative changes over the past few years, so there’s also nothing startling in the fact that PACs for banks, savings and loans and other financial institutions were the biggest campaign spenders, contributing $8.5 million to senators of their choice.

There were followed closely by the energy industry, with $7 million in contributions; the insurance industry, $5.8 million; real estate and construction industries, $4.8 million; the food and restaurant industries, $4.5 million, and the medical and health industries, $4 million.

Most often, the top recipients from a particular industry were key members of committees overseeing that industry.


“Special-interest PACs have contributed tens of million of dollars to obtain special access and influence in the U.S. Congress,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause.

“It’s time for Congress to face up to the fact that a political system that provides first-class status for moneyed interest relegates most Americans to second-class citizenship.”

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), the Senate Finance Committee chairman, received the most PAC money, $2.5 million. He was followed by Sens. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), each with more than $2 million in contributions.

Under current law, PACs can contribute up to $5,000 to a congressional candidate for a primary election and $5,000 for a general election. There is no limit on the total number of PAC contributions that a congressional candidate can accept.


In the ongoing debate about campaign financing, the Senate Republicans proposed last week to eliminate PAC contributions. Many Democrats denounced the Republican proposal as insufficient and instead favor overall limitations on spending.