Washington — The beleaguered Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), not known in recent years for efficiency, may soon get a helping hand with a monumental task: cleaning up United States toxic waste dumps.
Clean Sites Inc., a nonprofit firm dedicated to mopping up hazardous wastes, opened its doors in Washington Friday. It was founded by an unusual coalition of chemical-company executives and environmentalists - people who are traditionally opponents, not partners.
Toxic dumps ''represent the most immediate and urgent environmental problems this country now faces,'' said World Wildlife Fund chief Russell Train, chairman of the new group, at a press conference last week. ''Clean Sites will bring new, additional resources to the cleanup effort.''
And there is a lot of cleaning up to be done. EPA's National Priority List now contains 546 hazardous waste dumps. About 17,000 potentially dangerous sites have been identified.
Progress has so far been slow, to say the least. A combination of bureaucratic chaos, industry resistance, and plain difficulty has resulted in only about 130 sites being completely cleaned, according to EPA administrator William D. Ruckelshaus.
Clean Sites, say its founders, is designed to augment the EPA's Superfund cleanup program. As currently envisioned, it will be a sort of toxic waste SWAT team, swooping in and facilitating cleanup of a few National Priority List dumps.
It will mediate among parties responsible for the dump in the first place, getting them to agree on how to divide cleanup costs.
Then Clean Sites will provide technical expertise, and hire private contractors to clean sites to federally approved standards.
The company plans to spend about $5 million (half from chemical corporations, half from foundations) and cleanse 20 sites during the next year, estimates Louis Fernandez, chairman of Monsanto Chemical Corporation and a director of Clean Sites.
Along with Monsanto, Exxon Corporation, and other chemical-producing firms, Clean Sites founders include such environmental groups as the Conservation Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, and the National Wildlife Federation.
Some other environmental groups - such as the National Audubon Society - remain skeptical of the effort.
Though he applauds Clean Sites' goals, Audubon associate director Leslie Dach claims the new company has not made a firm commitment to cleaning up groundwater that might be contaminated by hazardous-waste dumps. He worries that it might, on occasion, get in EPA's way. And he's especially concerned that chemical firms will use it as an excuse to lobby for a relatively small Superfund - which would cut their costs, since the fund mostly comes from taxes levied on chemical feedstocks.
A few members of Congress share these worries. Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey, chairman of a House subcommittee on energy and the environment, urged Clean Sites supporters to delay launching their organization until a Superfund reauthorization bill (now being considered) had cleared Congress.