THE RISING CONCERN ABOUT dangerous industrial wastes has made officials more aware of how much toxic junk becomes hot cargo, transported and dumped illegally. "Gypsy hauling" and "midnight dumping" have been widespread and presumably lucrative covert businesses for years. In a report last year, the magazine Chemical Week cited examples from all over -- 50 barrels of nitrocellulose (gun cotton) found under a freeway in Newark, caches of waste-filled drums "in the South Carolina pines," 80,000 gallons of waste oil that "just disappear" in Hawaii each month, and 25,000 barrels of wastes abandoned in Minnesota when a disposal site was closed by a court.

Kentucky officials and the Environmental Protection Agency are now trying to deal with 300 to 600 drums, containing an array of dangerous chemicals, that were stored on a farm and swept into an Ohio River tributary by a flood last month. Some of the drums have started to leak. An even more blatant case is causing a furor in North Carolina, where officials are trying to decide how to dispose of some 40,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) contained in wastes illegally dumped, apparently from tank trucks, along 250 miles of rural roads last August.

The most immediate problem in such cases is removing the threat to public health. These hot cargoes are like time bombs whose fuse may be very short or very long. That was proved, of course, by the Love Canal tragedy that gained national attention last summer when foul wastes from an old (and, when it was established, legal) industrial dump bubbled to the surface in Niagara Falls, New York. Authorities found high rates of birth defects and miscarriages among residents of the neighborhood. A number of families had to be relocated -- too late. The cleanup there is costing millions of dollars; the human damage can never be repaired.

Nobody wants any more Love Canals. That's why EPA and many states are now trying to identify and cope with other potentially dangerous dumping grounds. That's why stringent controls are being imposed on future transporting and dumping of dangerous wastes. And that's why it's disheartening to see North Carolina officials seeking a waiver of three EPA safety rules in order to bury the PCB-contaminated dirt in rural Warren County -- where many residents, understandably, hotly oppose the plan.

We don't mean to suggest that the North Carolina agencies involved are taking a cavalier approach or deliberately trifling with the problem. They face a very real difficulty: cost. Disposal in Warren County might cost the public $2.5 million. Trucking the massive amounts of waste to an EPA-approved site in Alabama would take around $12 million. The difference is not insignificant. In our view, however, securing this toxic stuff where it is less likely to seep into groundwater or otherwise pose a future threat is worth the added expense.

That gets back to the heart of the matter -- the immense burdens imposed on the public by people who break the pollution and health laws and spread this potentially lethal litter around. They are the ones who ought to pay, as much as possible, for the damage already done. And vigorous prosecution of such scofflaws is the best way to keep the problem from exploding all around us as the costs of lawful waste disposal continue to rise. In the North Carolina case, three men charged with a number of state and federal offenses are scheduled to be tried later this month. Elsewhere, other midnight dumpers are being pursued. Those found guilty of such contempt for public safety should be made to pay a lot.