Does the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management have a Love Canal in its inventory of garbage dumps on public land? Agency officials apparently don't know and don't want to know.

BLM is custodian of more than 300 million acres of public land, mostly in the West. The agency leases some of its land to businesses and local governments for use as dump sites and mines.

A congressional subcommittee has found that the BLM doesn't plan to check its dumps for hazardous waste, hasn't asked for any money to clean them up and is more concerned with protecting itself from lawsuits than protecting the public from poisons.

The House Government Operations environment, energy and natural resources subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), tried to unearth BLM's landfill problems. The investigation was prompted by a 1986 New Mexico case in which 15 people sought medical care after their well water was poisoned by chemicals believed to have seeped from a nearby BLM-owned landfill.

"Whether or not similar problems exist at the 450 other operating BLM dumps is unknown," said the subcommittee's final report. "However, it is highly likely."

Committee members apparently thought they were being bulldozed by BLM officials. Synar told our reporter Frank Byrt: "The fact that responsible departmental officials made conflicting statements regarding its policies for dealing with the landfills indicates that they were either untruthful or did not know what they were doing."

One congressional staffer said top BLM officials have just buried their heads in the landfill problems and are waiting to pass the buck to the next administration.

More than a decade ago, the Environmental Protection Agency set down rules for the safe operation of landfills. Those rules are written into the lease whenever the BLM turns over its land to someone else for a dump site. But the congressional investigation found that most of the BLM dumps don't even come close to satisfying the EPA.

In 1980, Congress passed the Superfund Act, which requires owners and operators of landfills to notify the EPA where hazardous wastes are dumped. The Superfund law says that both the owner and operator are responsible for the cost of cleaning up the site. But investigators found BLM "has no plans" to look for potential hazards at the active and abandoned dumps. There could be as many as 3,000 of those dumps.

The Interior Department hasn't even asked for money to do the job. Congress appropriated the funds with the stipulation that the BLM begin the project. But to date, BLM has done nothing. The congressional report called that "indefensible."

The financial burden of cleaning up the sites is tremendous. EPA told the subcommittee that landfill cleanup costs could be as high as $71 million for each contaminated dump.

While the squabbling continues, a chemical time bomb may be ticking in the western landscape. The report concludes that the failure by the BLM to act "reflects an inexcusable indifference to {the} potential dangers."