New phase of environmental laws urged

Since 1972, the United States has spent about $2,000 per citizen on cleaning up the environment. Much progress has been made in fighting pollution. Yet today many environmental laws need revision, and scientists have discovered new pollution problems that the US has not even begun to address.

So says a two-year study on the state of the environment released yesterday by the respected Conservation Foundation.

''We have suggested the (environmental) game has changed. We're going to need new rules, new institutions,'' says William Reilly, the foundation's president.

The Conservation Foundation is a quiet group that spends little time on politics and much on research into such arcane topics as ''environmental dispute resolution'' and ''regulation of industrial plant siting.''

Its sweeping new report, ''State of the Environment, an Assessment on Mid-Decade,'' finds some encouraging trends.

Most of the conventional air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act have been swept from the skies, the foundation says. The majority of US rivers are now suitable for fishing and swimming, and surface-water quality is holding steady. A few toxic substances - lead, PCBs, DDT - have been mostly eliminated from the environment.

The foundation even concludes that the populations of many species of wildlife are increasing, although the evidence is sketchy. Elk, antelope, wild turkey, and beaver are among the species that may be multiplying.

But the report says that US environmental policy is now in suspended animation, stuck between old and new problems, between cooperation and fierce warfare among affected groups.

For one thing, all major federal pollution laws have expired and are now sitting in Congress, waiting to be reauthorized. The two sides of the environmental debate - environmental groups and industry - have essentially reached a stalemate, the report says.

And the march of science has revealed whole new environmental problems that may require the US to approach cleaning up the environment in new ways, says the foundation. Scientists can now detect pollutants down to the level of one part per quadrillion - ''a number that is essentially the width of your thumb divided by the distance to the moon,'' notes foundation president Reilly.

Among the environmental problems the US has yet to address are subsurface water pollution and indoor air pollution (composed of chemicals such as nitrogen oxides and radon, which are often particularly concentrated indoors), says Edwin Clark, a Conservation Foundation senior associate.

But the archetypes of this new wave of environmental problems are acid rain and toxic wastes. Both are good examples of the sorts of environmental issues that will develop in years ahead, the foundation says. Our knowledge about both these problems is limited: No toxicity information is available for 70 percent of the chemicals available in the US, for instance, the report notes. The cost of cleaning up these pollutants will likely be very large. And they fall outside the jurisdiction of existing laws.

In the future the US may have to take a ''cross-media'' approach to such environmental problems as toxic wastes, says the report. Today's methods of addressing air, water, and land pollution separately may simply mean pollutants are being shifted around.

Waste-water treatment plants, for instance, have become a major source of toxic solid waste, producing sludge contaminated with heavy metals, notes the report.

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