Toxic waste makes the people of central Massachusetts see red.

From fenceposts, telephone poles, and especially tree trunks for miles around the little community of Warren, flutter long strips of red ribbon.

''They mean,'' explains John Orszulak, ''that we're being held hostage.'' It is a subtle reminder that not much more than a year ago yellow ribbons fluttered from tree trunks to symbolize the freeing of American hostages from Iran.

Late last year, Mr. Orszulak, a retired machinist and grocery store operator, helped organize a group of people from Warren and surrounding towns to try to keep this area from becoming the home of what they fear will be the world's largest disposal center for toxic wastes. The firm that proposes to build the center here is the IT Corporation of Wilmington, Calif. Not surprisingly, Orszulak and friends call themselves STOP IT.

In their view, however, it is not IT Corporation -- a nationally known firm specializing in waste disposal -- that is holding them hostage. Rather, it is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The administration of Gov. Edward J. King (D), they contend, is determined to have a toxic waste disposal facility in Massachusetts. But, they say, the governor can't afford the risk of placing it near heavily populated Boston, or in any other politically influential community.

But Warren, a rural town nearly 70 miles west of Boston, sends no senator or representative of its own to the legislature. The Massachusetts Turnpike runs through the town, but the nearest exit is 15 miles beyond it. Thus, STOP IT members fear that, if they sit still, the area will become the unwilling site of a combined landfill-incinerator facility that will operate around the clock every day of the year, processing at least 15,000 gallons of toxic wastes an hour. And much of the waste, they claim, will come from states far outside New England.

Not so, insist IT spokesmen. They claim their intention is to install ''a high-tech, chemical-treatment process,'' not a landfill. IT's proposal includes references to a landfill, says vice-president John Schofield, because so far it is ''nonsite-specific -- all we did was describe what's included in a typical facility.'' A specific proposal won't be produced until later.

Moreover, says Mr. Schofield: ''We have no intention of marketing the service outside New England. There is no need to go outside. It doesn't make any practical sense. It doesn't make financial sense.''

What is happening in Warren is symbolic of every other area of the United States that wants to keep out not only hazardous wastes, but also facilities for disposing of them. Those who would build and operate such facilities call those who oppose them NIMBYs. The letters stand for ''Not In My Back Yard.''

To try to avoid NIMBY objections, the Massachusetts legislature two years ago passed the Hazardous Waste Facility Siting Act. It requires prospective developers to negotiate terms with the cities or towns where they are interested in building disposal facilities. The process is overseen by a 21-member ''site-safety council,'' whose ranks are filled from state environmental agencies, other parts of the public sector, and professional organizations. In case of disputes between developer and prospective host community, binding arbitration is required.

Originally three other Massachusetts towns were in line for the proposed $85 -million to $100-illion IT project. Each proposal fell through in the face of powerful local opposition. So the search was shifted to Warren.

Opposition here is no less vocal. But Warren has something the other towns didn't have -- two parcels of land on which the proposed facility could be built , neither locally owned. One parcel belongs to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, a state agnecy that is willing to lease it to IT. Title to the other is in the hands of a Connecticut man who bought it as an investment years ago.

STOP IT spokeswoman Linda Smith says the group thinks it has sufficient ammunition to shoot down the plant proposal. In the absence of an IT office here , the antiplant forces focus on King administration agencies and on public opinion. They argue that:

* Massachusetts law gives cities and towns the right to home rule. This means they can protect themselves against unwanted development with zoning ordinances and bylaws. Such provisions keep the state from taking land by eminent domain.

Warren is not zoned, but it has a bylaw barring the disposal of any refuse, garbage, or rubbish from outside the town limits. This was enacted because in 1972 Boston officials were eyeing Warren as a disposal site for the city's compacted garbage.

* Much of the land in this part of the state, including the two proposed plant sites, is so moist that the US Geological Survey has rated its suitability for most types of construction as poor. Lacking a ''site specific'' proposal that rules out a landfill, STOP IT contends there is an unacceptable risk of chemical-waste seepage, no matter what safeguards might be taken to prevent it. And the Quaboag River, the source of drinking water for nearby towns, flows only 1,800 yards from one of the likeliest plant sites.

* Seven miles north of Warren is the huge Quabbin Reservoir, the principal source of drinking water for 40 percent of the state's population, including the city of Boston. Proponents of the IT plant argue that there is no danger of toxic-waste seeping underground all the way to the Quabbin. But opponents say both parcels of land proposed for the IT plant are on much higher ground than the reservoir. They ask: How do you stop seepage underground once it starts?

A bill pending in the legislature would bar the siting of a hazardous waste disposal facility within 15 miles of the Quabbin. In testimony favoring the bill in April, STOP IT supporters cited the risk of heavily laden, chemical-waste trucks traveling icy and hilly local roads to the plant in winter. They said exhaust stacks from the plant could pour asbestos fibers and heavy metal residues into the air, where winds could blow them over the reservoir. They also warned that the plant could go out of business prematurely and leave the state with huge cleanup costs, as has happened in other states.

STOP IT has joined the town of Warren in a court test of the Hazardous Waste Facility Siting Act. In the meantime, other interests are trying to amend the act.

But should all else fail, Miss Smith says: ''If it comes to lying down in front of bulldozers, we'll do it. I mean, we have no intention of seeing this come in.''

''We feel that disposal should be a last priority,'' she continues. ''Even all the state and federal documents, if you look through them, say 'source reduction' (generating less hazardous waste during manufacturing) No. 1, 'recycling' No. 2, 'waste exchange' [recovery for use for some other purpose] No. 3. Then -- down on the bottom -- 'treatment' (and) 'landfill.' However, both the state and federal governments are aggressively pursuing treatment facilities , and they are doing nothing to pursue the other alternatives.''

Warren, with a low 3.8 percent unemployment rate, isn't interested in the projected 120 permanent new jobs that the plant would bring, Orszulak and Smith contend.

Counters Schofield: ''People don't understand that the crunch is coming. There are only 11 (chemical waste) landfills left in the US. When those 11 fill up, what's going to happen? I mean, the states are getting very worried.''

IT, he says, won't even get the necessary state permits to operate in Warren if it can't satisfy the state requirements for them. And as for going out of business prematurely and leaving behind massive cleanup costs, he maintains: ''IT is unique. We have very, very high insurance cover -- environmental impairment insurance. Something like $40 million worth. It is difficult to get, but we can get it because of our record. You have to be cleaner than clean -- and we are.''

The Boston-based Massachusetts Coalition for Safe Waste Management is probing the financial worth of IT Corporation as an indicator of its ability to build and operate a safe plant here. An earlier report by the coalition on another widely known waste-disposal firm turned up significant questions about its fiscal condition and helped squelch a proposed disposal facility elsewhere in the state.

Schofield is confident the report will show IT to be financially worthy of operating in Massachusetts.

The controversy, meanwhile, is taking its toll on Warren's town government. Legal fees -- estimated at $50,000 so far, and certain to increase -- are making budgeting for next year difficult, says Tom Guerino, administrative assistant to the Board of Selectmen, the town's highest elected public officials. He complains that while town officers are doing their best to stay informed on all aspects of the problem, they haven't always gotten cooperation from state agencies or public-interest groups, despite proclamations of deep concern.

At least, Mr. Guerino says, property values here have yet to be affected by talk of the plant.

Also complicating the issue, some observers here say,is the fact that one of the three selectmen was targeted for defeat by STOP IT in upcoming town elections on grounds he leans toward permitting the plant to locate here. Miss Smith, who has a degree in chemistry and has worked as a pharmacist, is a candidate for the Board of Health.

At what point does IT simply give up and start looking for a site somewhere else? ''We don't,'' says Schofield, ''unless a technical flaw is discovered or if legally we are prohibited. Then, of course, we have to. But this is a long, drawn-out business. Unfortunately, it is our business. So if people think they can keep throwing up hurdles in front of us in the hope that we'll give up and go away, we won't.''

William Hicks, the Massachusetts commissioner of environmental management, says a determination that the IT proposal for Warren is ''feasible and deserving'' of state assistance -- a term often heard in animated discussions of the issue here -- merely means that it is the type of plan the state deems appropriate for a hazardous-waste disposal facility. It does not mean, he says, that the IT plant is as good as built here.

Commissioner Hicks agrees that generating less hazardous waste in manufacturing is probably the best way to cope with it. He also acknowledges that Warren, like nearly all the rest of the state, sits atop an underground aquifer (a porous, water-bearing stratum of rock), which makes it less than ideal for such a disposal site. But, he says, there is a definite need for hazardous waste disposal facilities in Massachusetts.

STOP IT does not find such words reassuring. The group, vows Linda Smith, will not give up even after -- should that be the case -- all plans for bringing a disposal facility to Warren are dropped. If necessary, she says, the group's findings and expertise will be shared with any other city or town that faces such a plan.

''We don't think that this particular proposal is proper for any community in the commonwealth,'' she says, ''and we don't want to see the same thing happen to another community that's happening here.''

On the floor at the back of her headquarters, stands a huge spool. There is still a lot of unused red ribbon on it.

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