Washington — Is Times Beach just the tip of the iceberg? The Environmental Protection Agency has decided that Times Beach, a Missouri town on the banks of the flood-prone Meramec River, is so thoroughly contaminated by a hazardous chemical that it is not fit for human habitation. On Tuesday, EPA administrator Anne Burford announced that the federal government will simply buy the town, allowing residents to move elsewhere.
But scientists say that beyond the Times Beach buy-out lies a disturbing fact: While much progress has been made against air and water pollution, we still know relatively little about the danger and location of hazardous wastes.
''Nobody really knows how many sites there are around the country that are (as dangerous) as Times Beach,'' says Neill Orloff, a professor of environmental engineering at Cornell University.
Hazardous wastes are byproducts of human technological activity. That doesn't mean they have to be modern: The ancient Greeks, for instance, concluded that asbestos fibers used in weaving garments were dangerous to breathe, according to a recent Sierra Club book.
But the rate of production of hazardous wastes exploded with the Industrial Revolution. Chemical production, oil refining, mining, and dry-cleaning are just some of the processes which produce the dangerous substances grouped under the term ''hazardous waste.'' Lester Brown, coauthor of the Sierra Club book ''Hazardous Waste in America,'' estimates there are 85 billion pounds of hazardous waste produced in the United States every year.
And we don't know where all those pounds have gone. The EPA has identified 14 ,000 hazardous waste dumps, but ''we don't know how many more thousand are out there,'' says Mr. Brown.
Since the Times Beach dioxin mess became front-page news, for instance, the EPA has determined that there are at least 23 other sites in Missouri contaminated with dioxin.
''Nobody started looking for such sites until six months ago,'' claims Brown. ''That's the pattern you're going to see - when they start to look for (particular wastes) they're going to find them.''
That doesn't mean every county in the US, or even in Missouri, has a dioxin problem as dangerous as that facing Times Beach. Most of the 23 confirmed dioxin sites in Missouri are ''horse arenas, parking lots, that kind of thing,'' says Rowena Michaels, an official in the EPA's Kansas City office. ''There's nothing of the magnitude of Times Beach.''
And scientists don't always know the extent of the danger to humans posed by soil laced with hazardous waste.
At Times Beach, for instance, some soil samples had dioxin levels 300 times higher than the ''safe'' level established by the federal Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.
But the EPA hasn't made clear ''how the dioxin might get from the soil into people,'' says Cornell's Dr. Orloff.
The deaths of approximately 100 Missouri horses have been traced to dioxin. These horses might have breathed the chemical when dioxin-laced oil was sprayed to keep down the dust in arenas, Orloff speculates.
But Orloff says that method ''doesn't apply to dioxin found under a paved street.'' In Times Beach, the most potentially dangerous concentrations of the chemical were found in soil under roads. Missouri officials said Wednesday that the town may be converted into a park; then dioxin levels may be allowed to remain higher than they could if the area remained residential.
The level of contamination found in Times Beach undoubtedly demanded government action. But with Congress launching a least six investigations of EPA's hazardous waste cleanup activities, the Times Beach action has raised inevitable grumbles of ''politics.''
''The line we've been getting for quite some time has been 'there's no danger.' Lo and behold, in the midst of this furor, Anne Gorsuch (Burford) hops out to Times Beach and announces the whole town's been bought out,'' says Kenneth Kamlet, a hazardous substances expert with the National Wildlife Federation. Mrs. Burford announced Tuesday the EPA would pay $33 million for homes and businesses there.
But many environmentalists consider the buy-out at least a step in the right direction. ''This sets a precedent for doing this kind of thing in the future,'' says Blake Early, Washington representative of the Sierra Club.