Dangerous waste - buildup continues

Fresh evidence underscores the need for the United States to clean up existing hazardous-waste disposal sites. And for the nation to prevent the unnecessary formation of future ones.

The new evidence is a report by the General Accounting Office that 51 of 65 licensed sites that it checked were violating the terms of their federal permits. The GAO further found that although dump operators are supposed to check that nearby underground water is not being contaminated, 33 of 38 sites in one state did not.

This is one of several reports which indicate widespread problems with solid-waste sites. A serious concern is that waste can leak from the dumps into underground water potentially contaminating drinking water.

Solutions are possible. Perhaps the greatest need is for the nation as a whole - government at all levels, industry, and individual citizens - to affirm that action must be taken. Then must come a willingness to provide manpower and financing to clean up existing problem sites, regularly inspect others, and greatly speed the permanent licensing of waste-site applicants.

When feasible, alternate technologies should be used to dispose of hazardous waste to avoid dumping.

Also, the fear often generated by the presence of waste sites must be reduced. Prudence and swift action are important when called for. Yet officials and the public need to avoid the sort of hysteria that accompanied discovery of the chemical dioxin in Times Beach, Mo.

In recent months several good steps have been taken. The Reagan administration has bolstered its Environmental Protection Agency by appointing William Ruckelshaus as administrator and giving him strong backing to move to clean up the environment. Just this past week the US House finally considered a difficult bill to strengthen and reauthorize a major antipollution act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976; the Senate has readied the issue for floor consideration.

But more is needed. Ultimately, action should focus on pollution prevention rather than cleanup: That is more effective, easier, and in the long run probably cheaper. Thus industry needs to adjust its waste-disposal procedures to require a minimum of waste storage sites. Government needs to encourage industry to achieve such actions; it also must more firmly oversee those waste-disposal sites that are necessary. The public already has shown its willingness to support the costs involved.

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