Tampa, Fla. — Many Floridians were surprised to hear that the Federal Environmental Protection Agency singled out their state as having more dangerous toxic waste dumps than any other state in the union.
Many migrants from industrial northern states knew that Tampa or Miami couldn't come close to competing with Newark or Detroit in producing industrial wastes. Why should Florida have the worst problem?
The answer is one part political and two parts geographical, according to federal and local environmentalists who have studied the state's waste problems. But finding a solution will probably be two parts political and one part environmental, say state politicians.
''Florida has what seems to be an unusually high number of sites in the nation's top 100,'' says Victoria Tschinkel of Florida's Department of Environmental Regulation about the 16 sites included in EPA's nationwide list of the 114 worst hazardous waste dumps. She cites three reasons for this.
''First, we placed a high priority on this project,'' she says. ''A few states chose not to participate in the program, and some of them submitted only one site each within their borders to be sure it got on the list.'' Florida submitted 27.
Secondly, Florida has a high groundwater table with much of its water at or near the surface, she says. That makes the state more susceptible to toxic waste because the poisons can easily seep into the groundwater supply.
And third, population density was heavily weighed in determining which sites should be placed on the list. Florida has a large population near the sites.
An EPA spokesman says Florida had a high proportion of sites on the list because the state was ''pushing to get these sites identified so they could be cleaned up.'' Other states were not as aggressive, he says, and they will not get as large a share of the $1.6 billion fund Congress created to help clean up the dangerous dumps.
But finding a permanent solution for dumping toxic wastes on Florida's fragile environment will not be easy, state politicians say, because the possible disposal sites are few and the political power is great.
To dispose of toxic wastes legally, the producer now has to cart them to dumps in Alabama or South Carolina. No federally approved dump site is available in the Florida, and no state legislator wants one in his community.
''We're going to have to deal with our own hazardous wastes in Florida,'' said State Rep. George Sheldon of Tampa who is working on legislation to determine where a legal dump can be placed in the state. ''We can't continue to send our problem out of state. It's a very serious problem. The chances of it (toxic waste) leaking into our water supply are great.''
But Sheldon knows that the only acceptable disposal site will be in the northern part of the state. Most of Florida's peninsula was once swamps, and the groundwater level there is very close to the surface. A legal dump is only possible in the less-densely populated panhandle, where a clay layer can block toxic wastes from groundwater.
''The site for Florida's toxic waste dump is going to have to be in north Florida,'' he said. ''With a lot of the leadership in the Legislature coming from north Florida, we're going to have a lot of trouble getting something like that passed.''