For the residents of a subdivision near the tiny southern Virginia town of Hurt, the first clue that their community was being used as a chemical dump came last March on the paws of an inquistive kitten.
Noting an unusual residue on the cat, they did some investigating and discovered an open pit nearby that was filled with chemicals from a metal processing firm. It was less than 50 yards away form homes that rely on wells for their water.
Last month Fairfax County officials made a similar discovery -- a collection of glass and plastic bottles containing chemicals from an electronics firm -- on a county street. And on a horse farm north of Richmond 55-gallon drums of chemical sludge from a Maryland paint company were found on a secluded road.
State officials cite these incidents as evidence that Virginia faces a new and potentially dangerous problem as a dumping ground for industrial wastes.
With few regulations governing the disposal of hazardous chemicals and no designated landfills, Virginia is a relatively easy mark for firms that want to avoid the costs of shipping wastes to an approved site.
The improper dumping has increased significantly in the past several months, according to state health officials, mainly because of the small, independent haulers who offer to haul the waste at a fraction of the cost of larger trucking firms that comply with regulations.
The extent of the dangers, if any, posed by the chemicals has not yet been determined. One health department spokesman admitted that all "are still in the investigative stage."
State officials have been caught by surprise by the dumping and are hampered in preventing it by the fact that more stringent state regulations won't go into effect until next spring.
"We just didn't know that (these wastes) would be brought here," said James A. Saunders, a chemist with Virginia's division of solid and hazardous waste management. "We're currently in a transition period between laws."
Saunders explained that civil cases against haulers or firms could be brought by the Attorney General's office in Richmond. Trepassing charges could also be lodged against violators if wastes have been dumped on private property.
"But any criminal proceedings must be handled by the local Commonwealth Attorney's offices," Saunders said, and the stiffest penalties under current local laws might be no more than a $1,000 fine.
The Virginia General Assembly actually enacted new regulations in 1979, Saunders said but decided to model them after federal regulations that won't go into effect until this August. As a result, the state is in a kind of limbo until next spring, when its regulations finally take effect.
This spring the Federal Environmental Protection Agency passed more stringent regulations regarding the disposal of hazardous wastes. Starting Aug. 17, manufacturers must inform the federal government if they produce hazardous wastes. All haulers and disposal sites must also be registered.
Both Maryland and New Jersey have strict "cradle to grave" regulations regarding the disposal of hazardous wastes that require shipment manifests, advance notification of dumping as well as the identity of the substance, the quantity and the place it will be dumped. Both states also have approved landfills for hazardous wastes disposal.
Virginia has none of those safeguards and in some cases this has led to firms from outside the state dumping waste within its borders.
In the horse farm incident earlier this year, for example, the chemicals came from the Duron Inc. paint plant in Beltsville, Md., according to Saunders.
"This is not a one-shot affair, but an ongoing thing," Saunders said. "We get reports about improper dumping once or twice a week. What is difficult to believe is that a firm would send wastes through New Jersey and Maryland, where there are landfills, to dump them in Virginia."
In the incident near Hurt, inert metal hydroxides from an Altavista firm involved with metals and metal plating had been dumped over a span of seven years, according to Wladimir Gulevich, chemical engineer with the state health department.
"These were sludges from the metal treatment process," Gulevich said. "This type of dumping is more frequent now than before, possibly because of stiffer federal regulations that have been established. Firms may be trying to clean up in preparation for them."
Officials of Transcircuits Inc., the Falls Church firm where the Fairfax wastes originated, retrieved the chemicals as soon as they were notified where they had been dumped. Dick Walters, a firm spokesman, said that they were under the impression that the chemicals -- some of which were meant for recycling and not dumping in the first place -- would be taken to an approved landfill.
"That hauler will not be working for us again," Walters said. "And we will check out all of our contractors in the future."
Once dumping has occurred, however, retrieval is often "a lot messier," Saunders said, if not impossible, referring to a 1975 case involving the manufacture of the highly toxic pesticide Kepone.
"A manufacturer was attempting to make Kepone and the reaction went wrong and they didn't know what they had produced," Saunders said. "A hauler took if off their hands and dumped it into Bailey's Creek near Hopewell, Va."
Other recent incidents currently under investigation involve Chemstone, Inc. of (Menlo Park,) N.J., a specialty metals firm that has apparently shipped 600 drums of metal ore samples to a quarry owned by a subsidiary in Strasburg near the Blue Ridge Mountains. The partially buried drums are located in a pit and state health officals have not yet determined it they are dangerous.
Yet another investigation involves the possibility that dangerous levels of lead and mercury may exist on the 90-acre Culpepper farm of one hauler who has stored chemical wastes there for the past several years, Saunders said. Test results are not expected to be available before August.
Obtaining evidence in dumping incidents has made prosecuting the cases difficult. According to Saunders, "the problem lies in collecting the evidence in a court of law" to prove that violations have occurred.
The inconsistencies of local laws in also a problem.
A Northern Virginia prosecutor recently checked local statutes that might convict an independent hauler, only to discover that the applicable law had been struck from the books two years before when innumerable "petty" dumping cases were over-whelming police.
"We don't know what to do," the attorney said. "It's the lack of a criminal statute to stand on."
Current Virginia laws passed in 1971 forbid solid waste disposal without a permit, and permission from the state's health commissioner is required before hazardous wastes can be moved to an appropriate landfill, Saunders said.
Until the new laws are implemented next Spring, Gulevich said that the health department plans to write "registered letters to the independent haulers of the state . . . to put them on noice that there are hazardous waste regulations. It they continue then, it will establish that they are operating with a knowing disregard of the laws."