Politics of earth, air, water

Environmental issues may not be at a rolling boil on the American front burner - unlike Lebanon, the deficit, and presidential politics. But they are steadily simmering away at the rear of the stovetop.

Several major environmental programs already are before Congress for review and approval: clean air (including acid rain), clean water, hazardous waste, and toxic substances. Most likely to gain congressional action is hazardous waste, with proposals to curb acid rain also possible.

President Reagan has announced a slight increase in the annual budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, mostly for research into acid rain.

Americans increasingly support tougher safeguards against environmental hazards. In 1982, 37 percent of the public told the Roper polling organization they thought government anti-pollution efforts had not gone far enough; last year, 48 percent of Americans took that position. In some regions of the United States specific environmental questions have become hot political issues: acid rain in the Northeast, hazardous waste in communities with dumps that contain toxic materials.

In the short run, most specialists consider these dumps the nation's most serious environmental problem. No one knows how many there are: the EPA estimates between 15,000 and 20,000, and that 2,000 to 5,000 require major cleanup efforts. This is difficult and expensive: Thus far the EPA has completed cleaning up only six sites. Biggest concern is that toxic substances stored in dumps will leak into ground water, making it unusable; no one has discovered how to clean the water.

Another solid waste issue involves who should pay the cost of cleaning up pollution. The federal government has sued 9 firms and 19 individuals, for instance, to try to recover costs of cleaning up land in Missouri contaminated with dioxin.

And in the air: Environmentalists say that US firms release between 2 million and 3 million pounds of toxic substances into the air each year, much of this industrial exhaust that is not regulated.

Acid rain generates the most current air pollution concern. This past year a major struggle took place within the Reagan administration, with EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus pushing for a factory emission cleanup law. Environmentalists thought his proposal inadequate; others wanted no law. The latter won, and President Reagan in his State of the Union speech said he would provide more funds for research: no cleanup funds are expected.

Other environmental issues:

* Enforcement. Due to budget reductions over the past three years, EPA has had fewer employees to enforce existing antipollution laws. Environmentalists are concerned that the laws are not being obeyed.

* Pesticides. Public concern about the safety of individual pesticides increases pressure on the government to require more thorough testing of pesticides before they may be used.

* Drinking water. National safety standards have changed little since the 1960s, but much more now is known about toxicity levels. There will be pressure on Congress or the EPA to set more stringent national standards for drinking water.

* Wilderness areas. Congress is likely to add several new sites to the nation's preserved wilderness areas.

Beyond these short-term needs are long-term issues. Often mentioned is the need to realize better antipollution approaches are becoming available. Some firms are neutralizing the toxicity of wastes before disposing of them. Others have found it cheaper in the long run, as well as environmentally cleaner, to recycle wastes and reuse some of the components.

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