Learning from Times Beach

No one's health is known to have been impaired by the levels of highly toxic dioxin found in the soil of Times Beach, Missouri. But the federal government has acted wisely to end the delay over protecting residents from amounts considered so dangerous that authorities had urged them to leave town. This week the Environmental Protection Agency offered to buy out the community's 800 families and dozen businesses and help them find permanent relocation elsewhere.

Such a measure is authorized under the $1.6 billion ''superfund'' legislation to clean up hazardous wastes. But removing people from the site of contamination , whether at Times Beach or the long notorious Love Canal, is a poor substitute for the preventive steps that could have been taken earlier. The EPA's decision will be the more encouraging if it means a new concern for vigorously enforcing the clean-up laws in the wake of congressional doubts and investigation.

There need to be more examples such as that of Daniel Harris, an EPA field investigator, who helped keep the dioxin inquiry from fading away in Missouri. It is a decade since illness of humans and deaths of horses in the state were attributed to concentrations of dioxin higher than those in Times Beach. The dioxin was traced to waste from a chemical plant that had been mixed with oil and used to settle dust in stables. The dioxin in the soil of Times Beach - and various other places in Missouri - is believed to be from the same source. The lack of prompt action by authorities in the past is said to have been due in part to a mistaken excuse that the dioxin would soon degrade itself away.

The United States is smarter about poison now. The federal government's necessary lead in eliminating the residue of past mistakes must be matched with state and local alertness and effort.

Governor Bond of Missouri has proposed a number of technical, administrative, and funding measures to address the now exposed toxic waste crisis. He wants his state to emerge as a model in developing and using the best technology for the purpose. As the Times Beach residents flee under government auspices they should know that their ordeal may have spurred the action to keep others from a similar plight.

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