Three waste disposal sites in Prince George's County -- the only ones named in the Washington area -- were listed in a congressional report as places that should be investigated to determine whether they contain toxic substances.
That report was issued last October, but Prince George's County Council members and health department officials did not learn of it until last week when a reporter questioned them about it.
John Koontz, director of environmental engineering for the county health department, said, "We don't know a single thing about (the report). But it's typical of the federal government to forget to let anyone know.
"All they had to do was to give us a copy and we would have had a report (on the potential dangers) sitting in the Environmental Protection Agency's hands within weeks," he added.
Koontz said he planned to send health department investigators to "each of the sites in question" this week.
County Council member Frank P. Casula has sent a formal request to Koontz to investigate the sites, and forward the results to the council.
The companies known to have used the three sites say they have not dumped any hazardous wastes into them.
"This county is clean, basically," believes County Council Chairman Parris N. Glendening.
But Glendening and other Prince George's and Montgomery officials contacted agree that not enough information is passed on, and that not enough is done by the federal agencies to target, and clean up, former toxic waste dumps and to monitor existing facilities.
Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.), chairman of the subcommittee that issued the report, said research by his staff showed that across the nation "millions of tons of toxic wastes are disposed in an environmentally unsound manner, resulting in a ticking time bomb which poses hazards to public health and the environment."
The study was conducted by Eckhardt's staff in the wake of reports that residents near the Love Canal in Niagara Falls had suffered serious illnesses and birth defects as a result of toxic chemicals dumped into the canal.
The report of Eckhardt's House commerce subcommittee on oversight listed 3,383 dump sites throughout the nation as repositories of possibly toxic waste. The congressman asked the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct its own survey, in conjuction with the states, and "to compile a comprehensive national inventory of disposal sites used by the principal waste-producing industry groups."
In the six months since the report reached the EPA, the original list has grown to include nearly 5,500 dump sites.
But little, if any, of the information the agency has gathered has been forwarded to local and county jurisdictions. Some Maryland state officials said they have received none.
In fact, the EPA has not even been able to determine how many of the approximately 5,500 sites contain toxic or harazdous materials, agency officials said.
The three Prince George's sites listed on the subcommittee report are:
Anacostia River Park in Bladensburg.
Bladensburg Acetylene Plant site, Hyattsville.
Koppers Co., Inc., at U.S. Rte. 1 and Contee Road, south of Laurel.
The Bladensburg Acetylene Plant is owned by Air Products and Chemicals Inc. of Allentown, Pa., and manufacturing industrial gas, including acetylene.
One result of the manufacturing process is a solution known as "lime sludge," having the consistency of water and containing 10 percent lime and less than one percent iron and magnesium.
Federal and state agencies say they do not consider lime, or the residue it forms after drying, a dangerous substance.
John Horner, director of environmental engineering for Air Products, said the Anacostia River Park site the subcommittee listed, which adjoins the shallow lagoon into which Air Products dumps its lime sludge, is not a waste dump.
Horner, who is based in Allentown, said Air Products' predecessor, a firm known as Southern Oxygen, allowed the lime sludge to slop over the edge of the lagoon into the park.
Air Products reported both lagoon and the slop-over site when the subcommittee asked for the location of disposal sites used by the nation's 53 largest chemical companies and the names of substances they contain.
Horner criticized the computerized forms used in the panel's survey because "they did not leave room to explain a safe process" of disposal, he said.
"Now, in fact, that area (in the park) is overgrown with trees and shrubs that were helped by the lime being added to the soil. I've been there and seen it," said Horner.
Since Air Products was created by a merger of Southern Oxygen and other chemical firms, the lagoon has been deepened to prevent spillage, he added. The slop-over onto the park property occurred repeatedly from 1957 to 1961, he said.
The third site on the subcommittee list was used by the Koppers company, a Pittsburgh-based firm that once owned a paint company at the site but sold it in 1973.
Koppers officials said they did not know whether any facility still operates at that site, and could not provide a more specific address. Koppers operated a paint manufacturing plant there, "not a dump," they said.
In addition to congressional, EPA and state lists, Prince George's has its own, separate list of potentially dangerous waste dumps.
Robert L. Fletcher, senior planning engineer with the county Department of Public Works and Transportation, said that he has surveyed five landfills suspected of being used as dumping grounds for toxic substances. He said he concluded that the landfills -- located in Bel Air, Palmer Road, Accrocco, Upper Marlboro and Anacostia -- pose no apparent danger.
"By and large, we don't have a very big problem here," Fletcher said. "But finding these things is a terrible task to do. At this point we're just not set up to deal with toxic wastes, or to deal with toxic waste disposal."
Council Chairman Glendening has pledged to use "all the powers" he has to explore and clean up any potentially hazardous waste sites.
"Someday, 20 years from now, my (now) six-month-old son is going to go to a park and play baseball," said Glendening. "I don't want to wonder if he's playing on top of a toxic waste dump."
The council is opposing a plan by a New York firm to establish and operate a disposal site for chromium wastes in the Laurel area.
"I resist completely any new toxic waste sites," said Glendening. "If they can get away with it, they'll just cover it up and put something on top of it. I don't usually take such a hard line on issues, but even if toxic wastes are stored with proper safeguards, there are dangers."
Currently, the state agency charged with monitoring toxic wastes is the Department of Natural Resources. On July 1, that authority will be transferred to the new Office of Environmental Protection, which will also take over responsibility for monitoring the health and environmental dangers posed by toxic waste sites.
Since Maryland's environmental protection law was passed in 1977, the natural resources department has had its hands full monitoring the sites now in use for hazardous waste disposal. Spokesmen said the agency is not able to go out and hunt dumps no longer in use -- dumps that may contain dangerous wastes placed there in the past.
"The problem remains manpower, so all we can do is keep informed," said an enforcement official.
While the levels of government struggle with their lists and records, Congress is working on legislation that would target $1.2 billion for a super-fund to clean up dangerous dumping grounds.
Even with a superfund, "it's still a Catch-22 situation," complains Janet Luffy, assistant press officer at EPA's Region III office in Philadelphia.
"We'll hav enough money specifically targeted to clean up but not enough people to go out and research the sites and take care of the legal work," she said. "It just isn't a priority in this country yet."