EPA estimated last year, when the list of the nation's 418 worst waste sites was made public, that there are nearly 14,000 toxic chemical dumps in the United States. Critics complain that fewer than 10 of them have been cleaned up with Superfund assistance so far. Meanwhile, residents of the other 408 or so towns wait to see what will happen next.
Holbrook, Mass., is one of those towns.
''So, suddenly,'' Frank McGaughey is saying, leaning back in his chair, ''we read in the paper one day that we're on the Superfund list.''
His words are spoken calmly, with all the patience of a man who has endured the ins and outs of small-town government for most of the past 20 years, which he has.
But calm or not, Mr. McGaughey, chairman of the Board of Selectmen in this pleasant Boston suburb of 11,000 people, knows he has a major problem on his hands.
Just inside the western edge of Holbrook is a chemical waste dump that ranks 18th on the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) list of the worst in the country. If it isn't cleaned up in time, some people here fear it will contaminate their drinking water, lower their property values, perhaps even force them to leave just as residents of the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Times Beach, Mo., have had to do.
Over the years here in Holbrook, a company or companies - the point has been a matter of some dispute - dumped or otherwise disposed of unknown quantities of dangerous chemical wastes on its property.
What is not in dispute is that due to underground seepage and surface water runoff from the disposal site, toxic materials have worked their way into a nearby well field maintained by the town as part of its municipal water supply. Phenol, a corrosive poison, was detected in two of three wells in the field, which were ordered closed by state environmental officials. The third well remains usable as far as the state is concerned, but the town won't risk drawing water from it for public consumption.
Says one town official: ''The water down there smells like Mr. Clean.''
Holbrook now relies for much of its drinking water on a reservoir it shares with nearby Randolph and Braintree. In all, the reservoir serves 76,000 people.
But the reservoir is fed by the Cochato River, which, in turn, is fed by a small brook that flows past the Holbrook well field and the site where the chemicals were dumped. There is mounting concern that the brook, too, is becoming contaminated.
Richard Chalpincq of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) maintains, ''From what we know right now, it is not (contaminated) to the degree that it poses a threat to the public water supply.''
But Fred DeFeo of Flynn Engineering Inc., a Middleboro, Mass., consulting firm hired by the town to monitor the problem, says the brook tends to overflow into the well field after heavy rains. The return flow into the brook, he suggests, could be picking up contaminants from that field. But Mr. DeFeo says only limited samples have been taken and increased monitoring is needed.
''I don't think there's enough information to date to say there is or is not contamination in the brook,'' he adds. ''In my mind, this is a very major spill and one that is going to be extremely costly to clean up.''
The source of the pollution, as far as the town and the state are concerned, is Baird & McGuire, a small chemical company that has been operating on the current site for 71 years. Its principal products are waxes, polishes, and insecticides.
Baird & McGuire, its attorneys wrote in a letter to the DEQE last July, ''does not want to admit to have caused the problem.''
''As you know,'' the letter says in part, ''there are, and were, several chemical handling and manufacturing facilities in the area during the last 70 years.''
Nonetheless, the company and DEQE signed a consent order last October that mandates eight different cleanup actions, studies to be undertaken, and reports and plans to be submitted for the agency's approval.
But ''they are not in compliance with the consent order at this time, and we are studying what actions to take,'' says DEQE general counsel William Pope. Those actions are likely to involve a detailed examination of the company's books because Baird & McGuire, he says, is ''pleading poverty.''
He calls the company ''pretty small and impecunious,'' falling somewhere between the impoverished ''midnight dumpers'' and the large, affluent chemical firms involved in many other hazardous waste cases.
Adds Mr. McGaughey: ''They've been irresponsible since they went into business. It's a story of an old-line Yankee firm that made a lot of money and did anything they wanted.''
WEB Engineering Associates Inc., a Rockland, Mass., firm employed by Baird & McGuire, detailed the progress made to date at the site in a letter to town officials last Jan. 5. Among other items, it says that this month ''four wells will be installed and sampled'' to treat contaminated groundwater.
In addition, the letter says, continued monitoring of water quality in the Cochato River is being ''voluntarily provided.''
Holbrook's interest, in addition to preventing unacceptably high contamination of the brook feeding the Cochato River, is in returning its three water wells to service. A frequently discussed solution to the problem calls for the installation of a ''slurry wall'' between the contaminated site and the well field. Contamination could then either be dug out or sealed in place.
A slurry wall consists of a mixture of impermeable clay and water that is injected into trenches dug into the ground. Sealing usually involves paving over the contaminated area so water can't leach outward.
But the project would be costly, and neither the town nor Baird & McGuire has the money to pay for it. The company says it is ''prepared to spend $25,000 per year until the problem is solved.''
EPA Superfund money could be spent on such a project, but only if it is agreed upon as being the best alternative for meeting the problem, say sources in the EPA's waste management division in Boston.
In any case, ''We are many steps away from that at this site,'' says Barbara Ikalainen, who coordinates EPA responses to hazardous waste problems in Massachusetts. First have to come a ''remedial investigation feasibility study, '' quality-control measures, and audits, she says.
EPA has been involved in the Holbrook problem only since January, two weeks after Baird & McGuire made the Superfund list. DEQE had nominated the site last September as one of 14 in the state for possible inclusion on the list. The most dangerous sites are ranked according to a mathematical model that evaluates potential negative impacts on public health and the environment.
EPA official Dennis Gagne terms the Holbrook case a particularly difficult one. He doubts there will be much removal of contaminated soil because - at costs averaging about $200 a square yard - ''this one operation could bankrupt the whole fund.''