Boston — For months here in New England the hazardous waste issue seemed all but forgotten. Not since the cleanup of a small PCB-contaminated lot in the Boston suburb of Norwood back in June had the issue been in the headlines. In the meantime, tough new rules for waste treatment and disposal went into effect, at least in Massachusetts. Publicity over alleged mishandling of waste cleanup funds by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington had subsided, and the agency had apparently stabilized under its new boss, William Ruckelshaus.
Everything appeared to be under control. The public was on the verge of being lulled into complacency.
Until Nov. 22. On that day three US congressmen convened a field hearing in Woburn, Mass., on a bill to compensate people who claim their health has been adversely affected by exposure to hazardous waste. The hearing featured the testimony of one mother whose child died several years after having drunk town water that local chemical companies are blamed for contaminating. No industry spokesmen attended the hearing, although many were invited.
Suddenly, the issue was right back in the news. The events of last week serve as reminders that the hazardous waste problem is not solved, that the people of the region cannot afford to relax their guard, that - indeed - there may still be festering dumpsites waiting to be discovered.
There is a consensus among environmentalists in and out of government that the waste problem here is manageable. In Boston, the Region I EPA office has aggressive new leadership and has been authorized to expand its staff by 10 percent. EPA officials are talking openly of the possibility of the agency taking over authority the siting process for future waste-treatment and disposal facilities.
But there are 45 New England locations on the EPA's Superfund list of the nation's 546 worst toxic-waste sites (five of them are in the EPA's the top 20), and work hasn't even begun on all of them yet, says agency spokesman David Pickman. And that doesn't count the sites that states dearly want on the list but so far haven't been added to it by the EPA.
Some $34 million of the federal Superfund, plus $2 million more in federal Clean Water Act money for oil-spill cleanup, has been allocated to New England so far. But the cleanup of one site in Nashua, N.H., alone will probably cost $ 12 million, Mr. Pickman says. On the record, nobody wants to guess what the cleanup of New Bedford Harbor will cost; the harbor floor is coated with more than 100 tons of PCBs.
It's a time-consuming process: site assessment leading to feasibility studies , leading to remedial action plans, leading to actual cleanup. Delays are also brought on by court tests of cleanup orders and efforts to recover cleanup costs from the offending parties.
''When this is all over and done with, the only people who are going to gain by it are the chemists and the lawyers,'' says Pickman with wry understatement.
Sanford Lewis, a lawyer with the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG), says neither the federal nor the state governments here treat the waste problem with the seriousness it deserves. About one-quarter of state water resources are potentially affected, he contends, but still there is no ''systematic requirement'' that industries disclose where they have dumped their wastes over the years. MassPIRG has filed a bill in the Legislature this fall that would require such disclosure.
Massachusetts now has its own ''superfund'' of $25 million for waste-site cleanup. The superfund law, passed unanimously earlier this year, provides for stiff fines and prison terms for violators and triple damages for cleanup of a dump. It even gives the state priority over banks and mortgage lenders in collecting on liens against a violator's property.
But the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE), which bears the responsibility for waste cleanup at the state level - and for administering the new superfund law - is overworked. Madeline Snow, coordinator of the fund, says the number of potential sites still to be found and investigated is in the hundreds. Each time a major site is found, it ties up one or two staff attorneys, a couple of field engineers, and uncounted hours of staff time.
Ms. Snow ranks the state ''in the forefront'' of those attempting to attack the waste problem aggressively. But she concedes, ''It's a little too early to tell'' how well the new superfund law is working in Massachusetts.
DEQE administrators are asking the Legislature for $2.2 million more and 87 additional staff positions for their hazardous waste division in fiscal 1985. But they won't receive either if state Rep. Roger Goyette (D) has his way. He is from New Bedford and has watched the wheels of government turn slowly on that city's massive PCB contamination problem.
''I won't vote another dime for DEQE. I won't add one more job for DEQE,'' says the blunt-spoken chairman of the state's Hazardous Waste Commission.
What Representative Goyette wants is a law requiring that all generators of dangerous wastes be licensed - charged for the privilege of producing a hazardous byproduct. Until there is such a law, he says, the EPA and the DEQE ''are working out of an empty tool box.''
Goyette says 80 percent of the volume produced in Massachusetts is still either handled illegally or in an unknown manner. ''All I'm saying,'' he laments , ''is let's reverse the percentages.''