THE Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 was nicknamed "Superfund" about as quickly as one can say hazardous waste. The words compensation and liability in its title left no doubt the legislation would be controversial.The program was enacted as a short-term solution to a long-hidden problem that was sharply brought to public attention during the environmental revolution of the 1970s. Love Canal and other headlined cases of toxic-waste contamination gave a sense of urgency to the cleanup effort. Superfund is now 11 years old, having been renewed twice, in 1986 and 1991 (through 1995), and the work is just beginning. A little background helps explain why. Although the initiative was the federal government's, most of the money for Superfund cleanups was to come from those responsible for leaving, or dumping, hazardous substances in a potentially harmful fashion. Despite the best of intentions and some fine-tuning at reauthorization time, the program has been plagued with litigation, lack of expertise, and poor organization. In 1988 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established an Alternative Remedial Contracting Strategy (ARCS) and awarded 45 long-term contracts to 23 firms to help clean up the most dangerous hazardous-waste sites. In 1989 it came up with what it called an "enforcement first" strategy to force those responsible for contamination to "manage and pay for site cleanup." In a report issued Oct. 1, 1991, the EPA responded to Superfund critics. It cited three main complaints about the ARCS program's methods and progress: 1. That contractors were charging the agency for "inappropriate and unnecessary" items such as parking fees, business cards, and plants for their offices. 2. Contractors had been paid to operate offices before being assigned any cleanup work. 3. Public money had been wasted because EPA procedures for assuring effective management hadn't been fully applied. The EPA says that the ratio of administrative costs to overall costs in ARCS projects has dropped progressively from 70 percent in fiscal year 1988 to 42 percent in '89 and 29 percent in '90. The figure for fiscal 1991 is projected at 20 percent. One of the basic features of the Superfund program is "joint and several" liability, under which the EPA can assign all costs to one or more companies considered most responsible for the hazardous waste. In turn, those firms may identify and sue other responsible parties. This almost inevitably creates litigation, which can delay cleanup for years. Government funding for Superfund comes chiefly from taxes on industries and congressional appropriation. On Oct. 2, EPA Administrator William K. Reilly appointed a new Superfund procurements and budgeting director. Richard Guimond, who was serving as deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, has been given 20 "troubleshooters." They are charged with four basic goals: * The cleanup of 650 hazardous waste sites by the year 2000. There are some 30,000 sites on the Superfund list - 1,200 of them high-priority (that is, very toxic). * A review of all existing Superfund contracts in an effort to bring administrative costs down to 20 percent or less. * The centralization of authority and establishment of uniformity. * Oversight of contracting decisions and budgets. Clearly, this is a complex situation, with a high potential for wasting effort and funds. Illustrative of the perplexing nature of the problem, there is both ignorance and disagreement on the threat posed by certain substances (PCBs, for example). It is encouraging to note that EPA and Superfund officials are acknowledging problems and making a credible effort to confront them. The cleanup effort must move forward. Meanwhile, all Americans - from industry executives to homeowners - should take some responsibility by abandoning policies and habits which simply add to the problem of waste, hazardous and otherwise.