WASHINGTON Legislation that would help bankers avoid environmental cleanup costs surmounted a significant challenge last .week.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Friday approved the controversial financing provisions in the Superfund reform bill.

The bill is cleared for a vote on the House floor after lawmakers return from the Labor Day recess on Sept. 8. A Senate Finance Committee vote that will clear a companion bill for the Senate floor is expected after that chamber's recess, which is tentatively slated to end Sept. 12.

Although final approval of the bill will be handled during the rush to adjournment banking industry lobbyists still have high hopes for the measure, which would authorize the Environmental Protection Agency to limit lender liability for cleaning up properties contaminated with hazardous chemicals.

"There's a lot of reason for optimism right now we are still a lot further along than we thought we'd be at-this point," said John Byrne, senior counsel for the American Bankers Association. "And with the business community, environmentalists, and Republicans and Democrats behind the bill, you'd be hard-pressed to stop this."

The measure temporarily stalled when House Ways and Means canceled an Aug. 9 vote at the request of Clinton administration officials, who wanted to come up with a plan to tax insurers that was more palatable to a majority of committee members. The provision approved by Ways and. Means will raise $8.1 billion through taxes on insurance companies.

Committee members wanted to determine whether or not the added cost to insurers would be passed on to the average policy holder. Although some lawmakers voiced concerns that the new provision could indeed raise noncommercial insurance premiums, most agreed that compromise and swift action were necessary for the bill's survival.

"If we wait three weeks, and take this up in September, this is going to fail apart," said Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif.

The Superfund reform bill has garnered strong support from an assortment of groups that usually do not get along -- environmentalists, bankers, Chemical companies. and insurers. Lawmakers have had to tip-toe around amendments to the bill to avoid adding any provisions that could fragment the groups.

Although the delicate equilibrium of the coalition appears to have been preserved, the Superfund reform bill could become a victim of partisanship in the Senate.

A source in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said that Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., stated in a meeting with private industry representatives that he "doesn't want to see Sen. Lautenberg or President Clinton get an environmental bill." An attempt by the Senate's chief Republican strategist to.block the measure could delay the bill on the Senate floor.

The lender liability provisions will essentially codify a 1992 EPA rule that limits the liability of lenders, insurers and others, allowing them to operate without fear that environmental contamination caused by borrowers would trigger cleanup liability.

The EPA, in conjunction with the Treasury, will be able issue guidelines requiring lenders to establish procedures to assess environmental risk before making a loan.

Ever since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in February that the EPA lacked the statutory authority to limit lender liability, lenders have been faced with the same uncertainties as they did before the 1992 rule.

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