From litter on the roadside to acid rain, the United States is beset by environmental problems. But two in particular have aroused deep public concern recently: toxic chemicals and radioactive waste.
These are politically as well as environmentally sensitive issues. There are health fears on the part of many. The drive to free the nation's water and air from pollutants -- a national effort which marked its tenth anniversary on Earth Day, April 22 -- seems simple in comparison.
No national cleanup programs yet exist for toxic chemicals or radioactive waste. Congressional subcommittees are considering whether to set up a $400 million to $1.6 billion "superfund" to pay for an initial effort to clean up chemicals abandoned over the years by unscrupulous jobbers.But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which on May 5 issued a complex array of orders to harness the future flow of 501 hazardous substances after they leave manufacturers, estimates that the total cost of securing the contents of the 30, 000 to 50,000 chemical dumps in the United States could run to $44 billion.
The Carter administration, meanwhile, has begun a five-year study aimed at selecting a federally controlled radioactive waste repository to be opened by the mid-1990s. But both utility company and environmental critics accuse Mr. Carter of ducking the hard decision on where to put such a repository and passing it on to a future president. By 1983 many nuclear reactors will have run out of space for more temporary storage of their spent fuel.
Chemical waste -- in forms ranging from crankcase oil to deadly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) -- is a problem of quantity. Each year 1,000 new chemicals are added to the 70,000 already in existence. One estimate puts the amount of hazardous waste produced each year at 35 million tons and rising. Radioactive waste, on the other hand, comes in smaller volumes but is much more toxic and can take 10,000 years or more to break down.
One can get some idea of the scope of these waste problems from these two well-researched books. "Laying Waste" was written by journalist Michael H. Brown, whose stories in 1978 about the Love Canal crisis in Niagara Falls, N.Y., brought the problem of improperly buried toxic chemicals to public attention.
"Radioactive Waste," a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists written by Ronnie D. Lipschutz, one of the organization's researchers, examines management and isolation of radioactive wastes. Both books point out industry and government shortcomings in dealing with the problems.
With Love Canal as its focus, Mr. Brown's is a human-interest story, heavy on industrial and governmental insensitivity. It offers disturbing medical estimates of the effects of toxic chemicals on humans, recounting the impact of poorly safeguarded waste disposal on individuals who live near dozens of dump sites across the country.
Among Mr. Brown's most shocking episodes are those dealing with unethical operators who have entered the hazardous waste disposal business for quick profit. These "moonlight dumpers" undercut legitimate companies bidding to haul waste from factories, and then abandon the waste with little thought to the ultimate disposition. Chemicals containing PCBs have been dripped from moving trucks onto roadways, poured into gullies, and left on vacant lots. Barrels of waste cosmetically interred in shallow, unlined trenches have leaked into potable water. There is evidence that organized crime is involved in some of these operations.
Mr. Brown criticizes the long political maneuvering by the President, the EPA , Congress, and the chemical industry to dodge the costly cleanup effort needed to insure community safety. For all the attention chemical waste has received since the Love Canal incident, Mr. Brown warns, "the hard decisions were still being made almost entirely in terms of both cents and megadollars, with human health a secondary consideration."
Mr. Lipschutz, a physicist, offers a low- keyed, technical analysis of the radioactive waste problem. Ages-long geological isolation of the waste in salt mines or burial in the sediments of the ocean's abyssal plains seem to offer the best hopes, he says, but there are significant unsolved problems with the best of ideas, he points out. No one can yet assure the public that, as Sen. John Glenn of Ohio has said, the waste won't "come bubbling up 100 miles away 50 years later."
The history of radioactive waste management since World War II, Mr. Lipschutz argues, has been characterized by high expectations and procrastination. "The results," he writes, "were carelessness, mistakes, inflated claims, and unfulfilled promises . . . as well as repeated leaks of radioactivity into the environment."
The Department of Energy (DOE), says Mr. Lipschutz, is caught in a conflict of interest bestween promoting nuclear power, on the one hand, and trying to find a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste, on the other. The Union of Concerned Scientists recommends the government move responsibility for radioactive waste from the DOE to a new independent agency.
The scientists' group also encourages nuclear waste planners to bring the public as fully as possible into the site selection process. Maximizing public education and involvement, says the union, will minimize public objections to the final decisions on how and where to bury the radioactive waste.
Neither book is optimistic, but both serve to bring the reader up to date on two crucial issues for the 1980s.Solutions seem possible if the nation goes to the lengths necessary to ensure safe disposal in the earth of what came from it. Given time, nature, as Thoreau said, then may be able to "kindly heal every wound."