Ever since the Industrial Revolution began more than 100 years ago, America has assumed that to dispose of its foulest industrial wastes all it had to do was to dig a hole in the ground, dump it, and forget it.

To such dreamers, the patient earth has finally sent a mailgram: "The party is over."

Toxic wastes, especially chemicals, it now appears, don't stay put. They take their time -- sometimes decades. But eventually they ooze, give off evil smells, bubble up in noxious fumes as they did at Love Canal in New York, even explode and burn.

Most alarming of all, they seep down into ground water, migrating slowly, silently, and unseen in plumes of contamination that enter and poison wells on which half the nation depends for its drinking water.

The exact scope of the problem, which has surfaced only in the last two or three years in communities all over the nation, is unknown but obviously immense. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that this year 57 million metric tons of America's total waste can be classified as hazardous. The agency says it "has on file hundreds of documented cases of damage to life and the environment resulting from the indiscriminate or improper management of hazardous wastes."

Nearly all these cases, it reports, involve groundwater pollution stemming from improperly sited or operated landfills, pits, ponds, and lagoons.

Besides the millions of tons of waste being piped or plopped into these leaky depositories from on-going industrial operations, untold volumes of waste are moldering in abandoned dumps, the locations of which are unknown in many cases. The owners have either disappeared, gone bankrupt, or lack the enormous amount of money needed to clean up the mess.

Hence the "Hunt the Dump" program recently launched by the Sierra Club and Environmental Action. This joint nationwide program to turn hikers into hunters -- dump hunters in their own communities -- was inspired by the actions of a group of Sierra Club members in Acton, Massachusetts.

In 1978, the Acton citizens were alarmed when their noses were assaulted by a dreadful formaldehyde-like odor. It came from the direction of the Acton plant of W. R. Grace & Co., America's fifth largest chemical firm.

It was autumn, one of those brilliant Sunday afternoons that lure even the most sedentary out into the New England sunshine.

Alexandra Dawson of Weston hopped onto her new bike and pedaled over to the home of her friends, the Richard A. MacCrackens. Both she and Mr. MacCracken are members of the Sierra Club's Thoreau Group west of Boston. Where should they go for a ride?

Why not, Dick suggested, do a little sleuthing over by the Grace Company? The firm had applied to the Board of Selectmen for a permit to expand its six-building operation to include on its tract of about 250 acres a new plant for manufacturing battery separators. It would be using a process different from the one it was then employing. The application had become a town issue.

"We thought any expansion of the plant should be stopped until the air pollution problem was cleared up," Mr. MacCracken explains.

When the Sierrans arrived at the back side of the property, they found no fence, no signs forbidding trespassing, just a tempting railroad spur. They decided to walk along it. Suddenly they stopped short.

"What we saw," says Mrs. Dawson, "was the first of two lagoons. This larger one had steaming vapor coming off it. We could see a pipe feeding into it from the plant a liquid that looked like diluted milk."

"The lagoon had a ghostly appearance on the surface," Mr. MacCracken recalls. "Leaves on the trees around it were all wilting. Pine trees had lost their needles. The odor from it was just deadening."

In a sand pit farther on they found a large number of 55-gallon drums. Chemical labels were showing on some of them. Also dumped there, they say, were globs of latex-looking material in exotic colors that appeared to have been molded in buckets, plus scum from the chemical operations.

"We immediately recognized that this was a problem that potentially affected the water supply," Mr. MacCracken says. Two of the town's seven wells are located only 1,500 feet away."This is the first we knew that the company had such a dump," he says.

"We knew there was an odor problem," Mrs. Dawson says, "but I don't think anybody ever asked Grace how they were disposing of their waste. It just never came up. They have a lot of land there. If you enter in the business road, you won't see any of the back stuff. . . . I don't think anybody gave it much thought, frankly."

But from then on these and other citizens of Acton and neighboring Concord became acutely alert to developments in the town. They were present and vocal at the Board of Selectmen's meeting November 7 when action on the Grace permit was scheduled to be taken. The decision was postponed.

Not until six months later, in May, 1979, did the citizens learn that on the very day of that meeting the director of Acton's board of health received word from a state laboratory that the two wells closest to the large lagoon and dump showed contamination by organic chemicals. He passed this information on to town hall, but the news was not made public. Citizens still do not know why.

A week after the postponement, the selectmen approved Grace's site plan. They contended that since it met all the zoning requirements they had no legal basis for turning it down. They did, however, require Grace to pay for an expensive, year-long groundwater study to be carried out by an independent firm. The provision was that if it showed that Grace's operations were endangering Acton's water supplies, its disposal of plant wastes would have to stop or action be taken at Grace's expense to prevent such pollution.

Not until a month later did the selectmen announce that the two wells were contaminated and had been closed.

From then on some Thoreau members, joined by other residents of Acton, formed the watchdog group called the "ACES" -- Acton Citizens for Environmental Safety. They attended every meeting of the selectmen, asked questions, disputed statements by Grace, showed slides Mr. MacCracken had taken of the Grace lagoon and dump, alerted state and federal environmental agencies, and finally took the issue to the local paper, the Middlesex News, which ever since has kept the issue alive in the public's mind by a steady stream of page one stories.

Snooping through town hall records under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACES learned that there was a history of water contamination in the Grace Company area. And from the US Geological Survey they learned that the Grace lagoons are located over a major aquifer in the Assabet River Basin. An aquifer is a water-bearing stratum of rock, sand, or gravel. Before the two wells were closed, they drew 40 percent of the town's water from this aquifer.

About this time last year the selectmen were saying that there was no reason to believe that contamination in the wells had anything to do with the Grace Company. And ACES members say that Grace denied it was using 1-1 -dichloroethylene, the chemical found in the highest concentration in the closed town wells.

But one day Margaret Korde, an active ACES member, was on a commuter train passing the Grace property when she noticed that a tank car on the railroad spur bore the stenciled inscription, "vinylidene chloride." She knew that was another name for 1-1-dichloroethylene.

"I went back there later with Dick MacCracken," Mrs. Korde told the Monitor, "and from the tracks we could see there were three tank cars labeled that way and that a pipe from one of them led into one of the Grace buildings."

The Middlesex News carried a picture of the car, as did the New England Sierran. At a public meeting, Mrs. Korde reports, Grace personnel conceded it did use a little bit of that chemical.

Through further bird-dogging, the ACES discovered that one Massachusetts law prohibits disposal of pollutants into waters and groundwaters of the state, and that another makes it illegal to dispose of hazardous waste without a permit. The first one carries a stiff $2,500 a day fine for violation. Learning that Grace had no such permit, the ACES began badgering the Acton Selectmen to have both laws enforced. To date, neither of those laws has been enforced in this case.

But last July, ACES won its first skirmish. The state's Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) did act under another, albeit weaker, law and ordered Grace to prepare a plan for reducing its volume of waste as much as possible and "to treat the residue in accordance with modern sanitary engineering practices." The agency did not order Grace to stop dumping, and gave it a year to get its plan approved. Still, the ACES felt that the DEQE engineer who issued the order had done the best he could under the circumstances.

So although this was hardly the tough enforcement the ACES were pushing for, Gil Wooley hailed the action in the New England Sierran as "a very important and welcome precedent." He said it is "the first time, we believe, that action has ever been taken in Massachusetts against a company dumping wastes on its own property." Last December, the underground-water study was completed and made public. It concluded that Grace was one of several probable sources of contamination of the two town wells. Immediately thereafter, the selectmen ordered Grace to stop its method of discharging waste.

Since then the US Attorney's office, the Massachusetts attorney general, and the EPA have entered the case. They, plus the DEQE, have been monitoring a series of meetings between the selectmen and Grace. Though these meetings, still going on at this writing, have been closed to the public and press, the result is that Grace reports that no chemical wastes now are being discharged into its lagoons and that all dumping of wastes at its landfill has been stopped. It is offering to purchase water to replace that lost by the two closed wells and is proposing a plan to attempt to purify the aquifer, an operation that will be very difficult, if at all possible.

"Our position has been cooperation and forthrightness," Grace's assistant legal counsel, Allan R. Campbell told the Monitor. "But in light of the potential of this situation deteriorating into litigation, we regretfully feel it is not in our best interest to discuss the situation with the press."

Mrs. Joan N. Gardner, chairman of the selectmen, says Grace "has had a cooperative attitude and been a responsible industrial neighbor. When they have said they would do something, they have done it."

She points out that Grace's network of lagoons was no different from the type of disposal methods used by industrial firms all over the nation. "It was standard industrial practice for 20 years to dump industrial wastes in this way in order to avoid discharging into rivers and lakes. Now we know it was not a good process."

In Acton, public awareness to the danger of chemical contamination has been enormously heightened. Election turnout for Selectmen has doubled. Last month 1,700 voters turned one water commissioner out of office. At the same kind of election last year only 32 people voted.

"I call it rock climbing," says Dick MacCracken. "It takes continuous effort. Once you start climbing a rock, you have to continue until you get to the top."

It is to help citizens all over America to do just this that Environmental Action and the Sierra Club have drawn up their "Hunt the Dump Campaign" brochure. It lists what types of manufacturing companies to check out, includes a questionnaire to submit to each company, tells how to evaluate a disposal site , and then how to arouse public interest. There is also a "toxics lexicon" to unscramble those yard-long chemical names.

(The brochure is free from the Sierra Club at 330 Pennsylvania Ave., S.E., Washington, DC, 20003 and from Environmental Action at 1346 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, DC, 20036.)

What do these organizations hope their campaign will achieve, in addition to obtaining much-needed information on the location and safety of these dumps? "When citizens get interested and start asking hard questions," says A. Blakeman Early, a Washington representative of the Sierra Club, "the very least that will happen is that industries which generate hazardous waste are going to be a lot more conscious of their responsibility to safeguard the local community. I think industries already are becoming more sensitive to the problem and are taking steps to deal with it."

Marchant Wentworth, Washington representative of Environmental Action, says he thinks that "the most powerful thing we can do is to show citizens that they can have an effect. I think it is important, too, that residents who live around a chemical company site become aware of what wastes are produced at that plant and where they go. And ultimately, we would like to have the chemical companies accountable for their waste and for where they discharge it."

Environmental Action is the organization behind the first Earth Day in 1970 and is organizing the second nationwide celebration on April 22. "We call it the start of the second environmental decade," he says, and Hunt the Dump is part of it. Improper disposal of hazardous waste is now widely regarded as the chief environmental problem of the 1980s.

As the Industrial Revolution's chickens come home to roost, incidents like the one at Acton are popping up all over the nation. For example, just in the last two years, the number of Massachusetts communities with tainted wells has rocketed to 22.

Other examples are far more serious:

* Niagara Falls's Love Canal section probably sounded the first alarm. Eighty types of chemical waste buried 25 years ago corroded through their drums, percolated up through the soil into yards and basements of this residential area , and forced evacuation of more than 200 families in 1978 and 1979.

* In 1964, Velsicol, a Chicago-based chemical firm, built a pesticide disposal facility in Tennessee, which in three years amassed 250,000 55-gallon drums of waste. After five years of complaints from citizens of Toone and Teague about their water, the state ordered Velsicol's dump closed. The pollution didn't stop. EPA tests revealed that local people had been drinking well water containing more than 2,400 times the amount of carbon tetrachloride considered "safe."

* In 1978, a truck driver was discharging waste from his truck into an open pit at a disposal site in Iberville Parish, Louisiana. He was asphyxiated.

* For four months in 1976, an Indiana family drank milk from their cow that grazed in a pasture fertilized with sewage sludge from the City of Bloomington. The sludge contained high levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) from a local manufacturing plant. Result: The milk was contaminated by double the maximum amount of PCBs considered safe. A federal law passed that year banned production of PCBs after 1979.

Ironically, the very Congressional acts that have brought cleaner air, surface, and ocean water by setting environmentally-sound disposal practices have increased the volume of hazardous waste being dumped willy-nilly on the ground. But that cycle is now being broken by Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which Congress passed in 1976.

EPA has been severely criticized for taking four years to develop regulations under this law. Environmental groups have even sued the agency to speed up the regulatory process. In its own defense, EPA says that comments on the legislation by industry, which the law invites, have poured in.

The first of the regulations, designed to control the generation and transportation of hazardous wastes, was finally issued February 26. This month two additional regulations will be announced, to be effective in six months. One defines what a hazardous waste is. The other sets forth interim standards for facilities which treat, store, or dispose of waste. In October, final and more detailed standards for these facilities are due.

In a publication called "Everybody's Problem: Hazardous Waste," just released to the general public by EPA, the agency explains its three-pronged attack on the problem.

Phase one -- its regulatory program -- sets up a national "cradle-to-grave" system to track all significant quantities of hazardous waste from wherever it is first generated to wherever it is finally deposited. This system is modeled on a plan now operated with considerable success in California, and is intended to monitor on-going operations.

Dennis A. Huebner, chief of EPA's waste management branch in New England, explains how the plan will work: The generator of hazardous waste fills out a form and hands it to a transporter. When the waste arrives at the disposal site , a copy of the form is sent back to the generator. If the copy doesn't match up with the original, within 45 days the generator must report the missing waste to the EPA in his region. Phase two focuses on the ugly past, those oozing dump sites across the land which EPA estimates at more than 2,000. Under RCRA, the agency can force the owners of such ticking time bombs to clean up any sites that cause "an imminent and substantial" danger to health and the environment. EPA says it "has stepped up its efforts under this provision to discover, investigate, and clean up abandoned disposal areas."

In New England, EPA has 200 hazardous waste sites under investigation, plus a handful of active legal civil cases, including the Grace Company case. The agency is now considering whether to bring suit against Grace to compel it to clean up its site. In the Chicago region, EPA has nearly 1,000 sites under scrutiny.

William F. Cass, director of Massachusetts' new division of hazardous waste in DEQE, reports that under the state's new law his office has begun something entirely new -- criminal prosecution for illegal handling of hazardous waste. Last November, a Fall River businessman was convicted of illegally disposing of 1,000 drums of hazardous waste. He was the first person in the state to serve a prison term for this offense.

EPA is even using aerial photography to track down abandoned sites. This phase two search effort is where Hunt-the-Dumpers can get into the act and help.

EPA is also sponsoring a public education program of its own called, "Waste Alert." It consists of citizens' conferences on waste management now being conducted throughout the US by the National Wildlife Federation and several other conservation and health organizations.

Sometime this spring or summer EPA will publish "Pits, Ponds, and Lagoons" -- the results of its own nationwide effort to locate these surface impoundments, which it regards as the most prolific source of ground water contamination.

Phase three is a search for an answer to the $44 billion question: Who will pay to clean up these dangerous dumps when their owners can't be found or can't afford to do it?

Part of the answer may lie in the "superfund" legislation President Carter proposed last year. It would provide EPA with $1.6 billion to start mopping up the most hazardous of the abandoned sites. Eighty percent of the tab would be paid for by fees on industry, with the federal government paying the rest. Several other bills have been introduced to grapple with this complex issue.

Superfund proposals also would establish strict liability to insure polluters pay for the damage.

William Stover, vice president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, has warned that his group will not "stand by and watch the lynching of the chemical industry." He predicts that no version of superfund will pass this session.

Whether industry likes it or not, dumpwise, things will never be the same. The rising cost of disposing of hazardous waste will provide an incentive to manufacturers to develop new strategies.

Technologies do exist for environmentally sound management of hazardous waste. But EPA says they "have not been widely used because of their higher costs and because there was no legal requirement for their use." These options include:

* Minimizing waste by modifying industrial processes.

* Transferring waste to another industry that can use it.

* Reprocessing it to recover energy or materials.

* Incinerating it, or treating it to make it nonhazardous.

* Disposing of it in a secure landfill that is located, designed, operated, and monitored, even after it is closed, in a manner that protects life and the environment.

Says John Lynch, hazardous waste coordinator for EPA in New England, "we hope to make waste disposal expensive enough for industry so that other options than throwing it on the ground become attractive."

But corporations are going to need environmentally-sound disposal facilities for their irreducible minimum wastes. Very few of these exist now. Constructing and operating them opens up a lucrative new field for private industry. But siting them is going to be the problem.

Citizens like the ACES in Acton don't want chemicals showing up in their drinking glasses, and -- if they are like Americans almost everywhere -- their attitude toward a well-monitored, environmentally-proper disposal facility in their community is: "Why here?"

But EPA winds up its new pamphlet with this conclusion:

"Pogo, the famous comic-strip character, once observed: 'We have met the enemy and they are us.' In terms of the nation's hazardous waste problems, Pogo might have said: 'We have found the sources of hazardous waste, and they are us.'

"The American way of life as we know it today depends upon an abundance of manufactured material goods, and their manufacture generates hazardous waste as a by-product. If we are to continue to enjoy our present lifestyle, we must begin as a nation to accept responsibility for working toward a solution of the hazardous waste problem."

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