GAUGING the true cost of environmental protection has always been a losing political proposition for those who want to curb pollution and protect natural resources.
It's relatively easy to figure the price of, say, removing highly poisonous dioxins from waste water dumped into a river by a paper mill. New equipment or more costly operating procedures quickly translate into higher prices for a product.
But it's a lot harder to figure the dollar cost of not doing anything about pollution, especially since dirty water and air can impact health and safety over vast areas. What is the loss to New Englanders of acid rain caused by power plants in the Midwest? Or to the health and safety of people in southern California of not imposing stiffer auto-emission limits?
It's even harder to estimate the loss to biodiversity (which ultimately has economic ramifications) of overfishing or manipulating the flow of rivers, as has happened in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
For one thing, true costs often take years to catch up with business or government decisions that may have environmental repercussions. Billions had to be spent repairing flood damage in the Midwest, years after wetlands were drained and river flows diverted to benefit farming. Billions more are needed to clean up after nuclear-weapons production.
To ask if it was worth the cost of reducing DDT, asbestos, or lead paint is to know that the answer is yes. ''What is the worth of a single life?'' is the unanswerable question. To ask it is to end the discussion.
But as Environmental Defense Fund attorney Karen Florini pointed out last week, scientists say there are some 60,000 premature deaths each year attributed to toxics (compared with 35,000 deaths from firearms). Are some of those 60,000 part of the cost of economic freedom, just as many of the 35,000 may be part of the cost of the constitutional right ''to keep and bear arms''?
The Republican ''Contract With America'' says nothing specifically about the environment. But it does call for ''risk assessment/cost-benefit analysis'' of federal regulations, including those designed to reduce pollution and protect resources.
Environmentalists and Clinton administration officials are concerned that legislation designed to fulfill this GOP pledge may dismantle necessary safeguards. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner raised the issue last week in announcing the EPA's proposed budget for 1996. Ms. Browner worries that Congress ''will prevent us from taking the steps we need to protect the health of the country.''
Both sides have legitimate concerns. Is it necessary to make a Superfund toxic-waste site absolutely pristine again? Or is it enough to clean it up to the point where a manufacturing plant (although not necessarily a grade school) can be built there?
Browner said her new budget indicates a shift from ''pollutant-by-pollutant, one-size-fits-all regulation'' toward a more comprehensive approach that is ''cheaper for business and taxpayers.'' The EPA and other federal agencies are already conducting risk-assessment and cost/benefit studies. Browner says the EPA will target ''highest-risk environmental problems, redirecting resources away from lower risks.''
For those in Congress now chairing the committees that oversee regulatory agencies and their budgets, however, that assurance is not enough. It may be that in this age of balanced budgets and spending cutback (if indeed that's what this is), it's a good thing to be taking a closer look at the economic costs of government regulation.
But the benefits of such regulation - whether they're clearly economic or not - need to be scrutinized just as carefully.
Is it necessary to make a Superfund toxic waste site absolutely pristine? Or is it enough to clean it up to where a manufacturing plant can be built there?