After years of talking about it, pressure is mounting for Congress to take action this month to fix the Superfund cleanup program.

Groups seeking extensive changes to the 17-year-old federal program want Congress to get to work on the three bills awaiting action in the House, and the Senate bill still seeking bipartisan support.''We've been through the wringer with Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the administration over developing a politically viable Superfund reform bill that eliminates costly, time-consuming litigation and puts more resources into cleaning up toxic waste sites,'' said George Baker, head of Superfund Reform '95.

The coalition of businesses, insurers and others urged the Senate and House committees holding the four bills to ''put those measures to a vote.''

Superfund has been criticized for its reliance on the doctrine of retroactive liability to find companies that can reimburse EPA for cleanup costs. Under retroactive liability, owners of waste sites polluted before Superfund went into effect in 1980 can still be made to pay for cleanup of the property.


The insurance industry wants changes in Superfund to cut down the litigation that occurs when they deny claims from businesses seeking reimbursement of those costs under their liability policies.

Those delays contribute to the nearly 11 years it takes to clean up a Superfund site, according to a 1997 Government Accounting Office report.

However, the program has a bigger problem. EPA's authority to collect the corporate and energy taxes for Superfund's trust fund was not renewed by Congress at the end of 1995. Since then it has been using its surplus to fund cleanups.

Bill Archer, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, refuses to reauthorize EPA's taxing authority until Superfund is reformed.

Action to do so has been slow.

Mr. Baker said it's been 13 months since the Senate bill, S. 8, was introduced. The bill is sponsored by John Chafee, R-R.I., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Bob Smith, R-N.H.,of the Superfund subcommittee.

Since then the sponsors have been working with EPA Administrator Carol Browner on a bill Mr. Clinton will sign.

''Unfortunately, those negotiations proved fruitless as Ms. Browner engaged in a relentless stalling strategy in which she continually derided S. 8 as unworkable,'' Mr. Baker said.

Bipartisan support, however, is not a problem for the reform bill introduced in November by Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio. Mr. Oxley, chairman of the Finance and Hazardous Materials subcommittee of the House Banking Committee, has 20 Democrats on board.

Mr. Oxley's subcommittee has scheduled action on his bill Wednesday and on Feb. 13.

Mr. Oxley's bill would exempt all generators and transporters of waste at a National Priorities Site if their wastes did not contribute significantly to the cleanup costs at the site.


The bill also has the support of a variety of organizations, including Superfund Reform '95, the National Federation of Independent Business, the American Bar Association and Local Governments for Superfund Reform.

A February markup is also expected by Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., whose reform bill is before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Water Resources Subcommittee he chairs.

He told the Conference of Mayors annual winter meeting last week that the markup represents a ''do-or-die opportunity'' for reforming Superfund.

''If we can't create the needed bipartisan momentum, then it's almost certain other committees won't even try,'' he warned.

Mr. Boehlert's proposal focuses on exempting small businesses from pollution cleanup liability as well as apportioning ''fair share'' liability for responsible parties.


However, the small business exemption has been attacked by the Clinton administration and Rep. Robert Borski, D-Pa., ranking Democrat on Mr. Boehlert's subcommittee, for being too broad. The bill would exempt firms with 75 or fewer workers and $3 million in gross annual revenue from liability.

House Democrats have countered with their own bill, sponsored by Jim Barcia of Michigan and Calvin Dooley of California. The bill is also before Mr. Boehlert's Water Resources subcommittee.