Boston — Massachusetts could soon become a ''Somewhere Else'' - the place where most New Englanders would rather see a hazardous waste disposal site built. New England is thought to be generating 1.4 million tons or more of hazardous chemical waste each year. Yet the area has no licensed landfill site for hazardous material. The closest licensed disposal sites accepting New England's hazardous waste are in Ohio, Alabama, New York, and South Carolina. So it's no wonder that an estimated 80 percent of all hazardous waste produced in the region is not being disposed of legally.
A number of hazardous waste disposal companies, who see the area as a potentially lucrative market, have expressed an interest in siting treatment facilities in the state, to the dismay of residents of Warren, Haverhill, and New Bedford, towns currently being considered as feasible sites.
Hazardous chemical waste is produced by everyone from beauty parlors to electroplaters, dry cleaners to jewelrymakers, gas stations to paper mills. It's neither radioactive nor biological waste, as it's commonly misunderstood - but dangerous nonetheless. Engineers call it ''sludge, goops, and oozes.'' It includes PCBs, solvents, oils, acids, metals such as nickel, lead, and mercury, and hundreds of synthetic compounds, of which scores more are created every year.
It's the stuff the TV camera crews love, festering in steamy, half-eaten barrels in abandoned rock quarries. But a good deal of hazardous waste being produced today isn't being dumped in the woods at midnight. It's going down septic tanks and local sewer systems. It is generated by small-to-medium-sized manufacturers, many of whom don't know what they're putting down the drain. In fact, anyone who uses lye-based oven cleaners and rinses the residue down the sink is contributing to hazardous waste pollution.
As a prelude to the negotiation of a Massachusetts site, which could be named within a few months, a large public-education process is being initiated by environmental groups and industry experts to correct misconceptions about what such waste is, who produces it, and how it can be disposed.
''Studies have shown that 25 to 30 percent of the people you ask think you mean nuclear waste when you say hazardous waste,'' says Evelyn Murphy, head of the Massachusetts Coalition for Safe Waste Management.
She says fears are fueled by words such as ''dump.''
''It's such a nice, quick, efficient word,'' which conjures up an ugly picture. But ''dumps,'' or ''secure landfills'' of the future will look and function quite differently. They will have clay or concrete ''liners'' up to 15 feet thick that will hold the waste and any rainwater contaminated from contact with it. When full, the site will be ''capped'' with impervious material. The landfill area will be surrounded by monitoring wells to detect contaminated groundwater should there be a defect in the liner.
Perhaps more important than the landfill issue, but often ignored, are efforts to make hazardous waste nonhazardous, thereby eliminating the disposal problem. ''Landfill is a last resort,'' says Karen Pierson, of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which is helping communities ask the right questions of developers seeking permits.
She explains that one company's waste is another's raw material, and can be aggregated and resold. Other substances such as solvents and metals can be recovered from sludge through incineration, precipitation, and other purification techniques. ''It's worth it to get that nickel and mercury back out of sludges,'' she says. That's precisely the reason so many companies are willing to brave public outrage, years of red tape, and costly monitoring and reporting procedures to get into the business.
According to Roland Veronneau, director of Environmental Waste Removal, which has a treatment plant a few blocks from the city hall in downtown Waterbury, Conn., ''up to 50 percent'' of the waste generated in New England can be reused. Acids and oils can be ''cleaned up,'' he says, and solvents can be chemically downgraded for use in cleaning or as secondary fuel.
''Environmental audits, much like energy audits'' will become popular as companies realize the value of the waste they produce and the cost of disposing it, according to Karen Pierson. An auditor will instruct firms on how to change manufacturing processes to generate less waste and how to recover what they do produce.
''The process is more like that of an oil refinery or other chemical processing,'' says John Theiss of IT Corporation, the controversial company which is seeking a permit for a large treatment and landfill site in Warren, Mass. But because of towns' fear ''we have to go through the same process as a dump.''
Unlike some states, Massachusetts' siting law, drafted a year ago, does not give the state the power to override local opposition to a site. Instead, economic incentives are being looked to as the answer to the siting problem. The state requires a developer to negotiate with communities for compensation - perhaps an annual sum or a fee per barrel, or other incentives such as new fire equipment required as a safety measure, and contributions to the police department.
A town could ''virtually wipe out taxes for a number of years'' by accepting a treatment site, according to Norman Beecher of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
But not all towns are biting on that carrot. Joe Bevilacqua is director of planning for the city of Haverhill, Mass., where SRS Inc. is proposing a solvent recovery plant. Negotiations were jolted Oct. 1 when the SRS plant in Linden, N.J., went up in flames. Mr. Bevilacqua says SRS ''has no place in Haverhill,'' and suggests that facilities should be located on ''vast tracts of land in western Massachusetts,'' away from highly concentrated populations. The DEM is considering the sale of public lands for waste treatment, to circumvent towns' opposition.
Studies are under way to determine whether local property values go down when hazardous waste facilities are built nearby.