CAROL BROWNER, the new administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, didn't even have time to get used to her new office before finding herself involved in controversy. The subject: disposal of hazardous wastes, including highly toxic dioxin, by incinerating them at extremely high temperatures. At present, 16 such facilities are operating in the US. Two others - in Jacksonville, Ark., and East Liverpool, Ohio, are operable but not active. They are at the center of heated debate.
On Feb. 12, a US district court ruled that the Arkansas company, Vertac Sites Contractor, would have to demonstrate that its incinerator could be 99.9999 percent successful in destroying the toxic waste in order to operate. The same success percentage would also have to be demonstrated by the even larger Ohio incinerator, owned by Waste Technologies Industries (WTI).
President Clinton approved the Arkansas incinerator when he was governor. And before leaving office, former President George Bush approved the the WTI facility. Vice President Al Gore Jr. said in December that no permit for testing the huge Ohio incinerator would be issued until a study was conducted by the US General Accounting Office.
The well-known environmental group Greenpeace has been spearheading a drive to eliminate hazardous-waste incineration.
In a Catch 22 situation, environmental authorities have so far ruled out direct testing of dioxin in the incinerators; instead, substances sharing characteristics with it are used. This does not satisfy the opposition. Many of the best informed and most concerned environmental professionals support incineration to dispose of hazardous wastes, including dioxin.
It is unfortunate that WTI's $160 million incinerator is only 1,100 feet from a school, but its owners maintain there is no hazard. They have waited for 13 years and survived 21 challenges so far.
The result of another test, in federal court in Cleveland, is expected soon. Court action aside, if Carol Browner, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton fail to untangle this environmental puzzle, the new administration will lose precious credibility.