The photo of scrap metal piled high at McMurdo station, used in your Sept. 28 story on Antarctic waste disposal and protection of the environment there, was taken nearly three years ago and leaves an erroneous impression of present operations.

Ironically, the photograph depicts a staging area where solid waste and other materials are removed from the Antarctic for proper disposal elsewhere. It is not a permanent repository. These materials accumulated from decades of practices during which environmental protection had to be balanced against the expeditionary nature of operating in an extreme environment. Environmental sensitivities in this agency and the general public have progressed greatly since the 1950s, when the Antarctic program began.

The National Science Foundation recently requested from Congress a five-year, $180 million environmental, safety and health initiative to improve U.S. Antarctic operations. The environmental portion of this initiative will enable the NSF to clean up areas, implement a comprehensive waste-management system and operate its stations in an environmentally responsible manner. In 1989 alone, more than 680,000 pounds of scrap were removed from McMurdo station.

Sound environmental practices can coexist with a vigorous scientific program. Any suggestion to the contrary fails to recognize how far we've come and where we're going.

Alan M. Levitt

The writer is director of public affairs for the National Science Foundation.