The FBI may be about to join the battle against illegally dumped and buried toxic chemicals, a national problem likened yesterday to "the Wild West of the 1870s . . . with just not any lawmen out there."
The analogy was drawn by James W. Moorman, an assistant attorney general, as the House oversight and investigations subcommittee continued its inquiry into hazardous-waste disposal practices.
Moorman disclosed that the Department of Justice is taking steps to assign FBI agents to help the Environmental Protection Agency track down and prosecute violators of federal waste disposal laws.
EPA has estimated there are 30,000 hazardous waste dumps in the country, with 2,000 of them posing "an imminent and substantial endangerment" to public health.
The agency's regulation of those and the more notorious cases-the Love Canal in New York and Kentucky's Valley of the Barrels-is the target of the subcommittee inquiry.
"Nobody-EPA, the states, the Department of Justice-is doing enough." Moorman said. "It is harder to think of a more serious problem for the country."
But, he testified, a major impediment is that EPA has neither the personnel nor the skills to carry out the kind of criminal investigations needed to "bite" what he called "the worst of the offenders."
Moorman said the Justice Department has not made a final decision, but that Attorney General Griffin B. Bell is "positive" about the idea of using the FBI in hard-to-document chemical dumping cases.
Moorman's remarks drew a favorable response from the subcommittee members, who took turns lambasting EPA and its regulation of the thousands of dumps, many containing hazards described as environmental time bombs waiting to go off.
In other developments yesterday:
Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-tex.), sub-committee chairman, said the panel will vote today on issuing a subpoena directing the Hooker Chemical Co. to deliver information about an 880-acre dump at Montague, Mich.
The company had promised to turn over the data at a hearing on April 10, but Eckhardt said that Monday the firm's parent-Occidental Petroleum Corp.-reneged on the premise.
Michigan Attorney General Frank J. Kelley, who sued Hooker in February to force a cleanup at Montague, was critical of both the company and EPA.
He said that since the suit was filed, Michigan scientists have found 70 more toxic chemicals in the dump, including carcinogenic and mutagenic Mirex and Depone, which is contaminating Lake Michigan.
Prior to February, he said, Michigan had found some 30 toxic substances in the huge dump, which Hooker established in the 1950s after moving from the Love Canal area at Niagara Falls, N.Y.
The subcommittee learned last month that Hooker had dumped tons of toxic chemicals into its New York waste sites, knowing for two decades that the substances threatened pregnant women and children. Most residents have been evacuated from the area during the last year.
Kelley said the company has not been helpful in cleaning up the Montague site. He said Hooker suppressed information showing that the dump has caused serious water contamination for at least 11 years.
He also complained that EPA has "done virtually nothing" to assist the state in stopping water contamination caused by the dumping of a toxic chemical by the Air Force at Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
Kelley said EPA issued an order in October, directing the Air Force to stop its release of trichloroethylene (TCE), a toxic degreasing agent used on airplane engines.