CITIZENS have the right to be free of concern that they might live, work, or play near toxic substances. There should be an orderly procedure to discover and root out contamination. Sites that are toxic-waste dumps or are otherwise adjudged contaminated should be identified; a program of cleanup should be carefully mapped out and promptly followed through; and the nation should be rigorous in preventing the establishment of future pollution sites.
Much has been done in these areas, both on a national and state level. But far more remains unfinished: This is no time for resting on laurels.
The overall issue has twice been brought forth in recent days. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency shut down a hazardous-waste dump after being told the dump operators had knowingly put contaminated water into a nearby town's drinking water supply. And the Boy Scouts of America learned that some of the land in the Virginia Army base on which they held a national jamboree in 1981 contained a residue of the chemical dioxin; more site tests are planned.
Judging from initial responses, the proper steps appear to have been taken in both instances. It is important that the public be informed fully and promptly of any suspected contamination; the next step is expeditious cleanup.
Some 780 hazardous-waste sites have been identified and placed on a national priority list. Six have been fully cleaned up; an estimated two hundred or more are in various stages of decontamination, primarily in the engineering stage, with actual cleanup to follow. In addition, some 280 sites have had emergency work; in most instances, either contaminated soil has been removed or fences erected to keep people away.
This year Congress passed and President Reagan signed a new law that can have a major effect in preventing future toxic-waste sites from being established - an essential long-range step. The measure substantially tightens the federal restrictions on disposal of toxic wastes. Further, it brings small companies under the control of these requirements.
Much remains to be done, however. For one thing, by some estimates there may be as many as 17,000 toxic-waste sites in the United States already, of which possibly 7,000 are serious enough to be candidates for federally funded cleanup. In addition, the so-called Superfund - which provides money to clean up these dumps - should be reauthorized next year. During discussions this year it faced a good deal of opposition in Congress and within the administration, on grounds that the proposed reauthorization would have provided too much money: A final compromise version proposed $7.5 billion over five years, down from the $10.2 billion approved by the House of Representatives.
Next year the fight over Superfund reauthorization is expected to center on these issues: How large should the program be? How fast should cleanup progress? And to what degree should contaminated sites be cleaned up?
Adequate funding, efficiently used, will be a key to the degree of success of the effort to deal with toxic wastes. Sufficient money should be made available to permit the hiring of enough state or federal inspectors to see that the stiffer law on toxic dumping is adhered to, and to keep watch on the decontamination efforts at existing sites. In addition, decontamination efforts at dumps are expensive: Adequate funding is required to produce without undue delay the cleanup the nation requires.