Uncle Sam's land for toxic waste?

The Reagan administration must be exceptionally cautious as it considers the possibility of using some government-owned lands as sites on which to dump toxic waste. Paramount must be the safety of Americans, not merely the fact that the government already owns the land. Great care needs to be taken to ascertain that putting waste on a specific site would pose no health threat to persons nearby.

In many parts of the US enormous pressure now exists to find some safe place to dump industrial chemicals and other hazardous waste. Firms in nearly every geographic area need a site - but almost every community wants it established somewhere else. This produces pressure for someone, somewhere, to come up with approved dumping sites. It is this pressure for quick action that must be resisted by the sub-Cabinet level group now studying the issue.

The Reagan administration says the study still is in an early stage, that no parks lands are being considered, and that alternatives to dumping on federal lands also are being studied. All of that is to the good.

Unfortunately the adminstration's record is mixed on the use of federally owned lands it considers unneeded. Earlier this year the Interior Department planned to reduce the deficit a little by selling to private enterprise some public lands which, it turned out, were very much used by Americans. After howls of protest the department took the good step of deciding not to.

In any case, the whole issue reinforces the realization that other means must be found to dispose of hazardous wastes; burying them in the land only bequeaths the problem to subsequent generations.

Fortunately, progress is being made on several fronts in developing alternatives. Scientists have discovered that the dangerous elements of some wastes can be almost totally neutralized by chemical or biological treatment, or by burning.

Work in this direction of identifying alternative and more permanent solutions needs to continue as urgently as funds can be found, even as the nation seeks out safe burial sites as a temporary answer.

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