Washington — Congress is heading for another showdown with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This time it's over the agency's enforcement of laws to prevent the contamination of hundreds of the nation's underground aquifers. The issue concerns the installation and monitoring of test wells near toxic-waste landfill sites, and the reluctance of the EPA to crack down on those who can't or don't comply with monitoring standards.
``We are very serious about EPA pursuing this,'' says a congressional aide. ``We are going to watch them on a day-to-day basis, and there is probably going to be trouble if they don't [crack down].''
Such wells have been required by Congress since 1981 to ensure that dangerous chemicals and other hazardous wastes dumped in landfill sites don't seep into underground water reservoirs.
A survey released last week by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee revealed that ground water beneath 559 toxic-waste sites showed ``some indication of ground-water contamination.'' The sites are mostly in urban regions and are spread throughout the United States.
The survey said EPA enforcement had been ``dilatory and seriously deficient.''
Last year, because of massive noncompliance with the monitoring law, Congress set a new deadline of Nov. 8, 1985. By that time operators of toxic-waste disposal sites must be in compliance with the law or be shut down.
But as the deadline draws nearer, questions have arisen about whether the EPA will oblige Congress with the vigorous crackdown it seeks. EPA spokesman Dave Cohen says those companies that have made ``good-faith efforts'' to comply with the monitoring law ``could be given an extension'' on the Nov. 8 deadline.
Mr. Cohen added that the agency is planning to get tough with toxic-waste dump operators who have made no effort to comply with monitoring laws. ``We have every intention of shutting down recalcitrants after the deadline,'' he says.
EPA officials have expressed concern that strict enforcement of the law may force the closure of roughly 50 percent of some 1,450 toxic waste sites. They say such tough enforcement may also force some businesses into bankruptcy.
``If we have closures of that magnitude, we do not think there is off-site capacity to handle [toxic-waste dumping needs] right now,'' Gene A. Lucero, director of EPA's Office of Waste Programs Enforcement, told the House subcommittee last week.
``We are threatening under this policy to bring the Superfund program to a standstill,'' because of a lack of places to store toxic wastes removed from cleanup sites, he adds. The Superfund program is a federal emergency effort to clean up the most dangerous dump sites.
Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey, a principal architect of the current toxic-waste law, was unmoved by Mr. Lucero's argument. ``You should have closed these people down in 1981 if they weren't in compliance,'' Mr. Florio said.
Florio has asked the General Accounting Office, the government's watchdog agency, to audit EPA enforcement efforts during the next six months to make sure laws are enforced strictly.
Concerns in Congress about lax EPA enforcement were documented in the subcommittee's survey. It revealed that nearly half of the 1,246 toxic dump sites subject to federal ground-water monitoring requirements showed indications of ground-water contamination. And it found that monitoring wells have not even been drilled at 188 of the toxic-waste sites.
Subcommittee chairman John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan said the survey results were ``particularly shocking'' since EPA officials say ground-water contamination is one of their top priorities.
``Only approximately 40 percent of the well detection systems are adequate,'' Mr. Dingell said. ``The majority of hazardous-waste facilities have inadequate wells, well systems of unknown quality, or no well systems at all.''
The survey suggests that federal and state officials often don't know if ground water has been contaminated. Roughly half of all American homes rely on water from aquifers for their drinking water.
``It could take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up one contaminated aquifer,'' Joel Hirschhorn of Congress's Office of Technology Assessment told a House Science and Technology subcommittee last week.