Sorting the US Trash Pile

THEN Terri Swearingen chained herself last week to a concrete block in front of the White House to demonstrate her opposition to the licensing of a huge incinerator near her home in Chester, W.Va., she was venting frustration that many Americans have felt - even as they add their weekly deposits to the community landfill or the dump.

Mrs. Swearingen will not soon see her protest goal fulfilled. The Waste Technology Industries incinerator looms across the Ohio River, in East Liverpool, Ohio - just 1,100 feet from an elementary school. Like many other incinerators in the US, it will soon be burning refuse, including hazardous materials such as dioxin. Testers say virtually all dioxin and other such wastes will be eliminated in the Ohio facility. Ironically, dioxin was not burned in the testing process; substances with similar character istics were substituted. (That tells us something about how toxic it is.)

But Swearingen and fellow members of Greenpeace, one of the most militant of American environmentalist groups, can claim a broader victory: The administration in Washington, with Carol Browner as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has announced what it terms a "rigorous program" of inspection and controls, including an 18-month moratorium on burning capacity and the issuance of new building permits. Facilities deemed unsafe will be shut down. Some 355 incinerators are involved. No perm its to build new facilities are to be issued during that time.

This is a major step in the right direction, but there is a lot of undoing ahead. Since the 1950s Americans have pretty much taken for granted that waste disposal could be handled by advancing technology. Now they are finding out just how difficult and costly it will be. The Clinton-Gore administration at least seems committed, as promised in their campaign, to finding the problems and seeking solutions.

It won't be easy; it will be costly. It is likely to require basic changes in current lifestyles. The packaged, throw-away society may have to forgo some amenities, but our heirs will thank us for it.

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