DEALING WITH DANGEROUS dumps is going to be a huge, hard job. That warning has come repeatedly this month from the Environmental Protection Agency and Justice Department officials who have been digging into the problem since the Love Canal disaster focused public attention on the perils of discarded hazardous wastes.
There are difficulties at every stage. More ominous dumps keep coming to light-a landfill laden with deadly pesticide wastes in Arkansas, a warehouse in New Jersey full of drums of chemicals. But no one has identified all of the spots around the country where poisons have been dumped, legally and illegally, over the years. Estimates of the number that could be troublesome range from several hundred up to 34,000 or so. Each site, once found, should be thoroughly analyzed. Proper disposal or containment plans must be devised. Responsibility for cleaning up and liability for any harm must be established; that can be hard where material was dumped anonymously or a site has been abandoned or changed ownership. Finally, someone has to pay-and even if costs can eventually be recovered from some dumpers, the burden on public agencies is going to be immense.
EPA and Justice have no shortage of determination, but their resources are slight. By borrowing people from other programs, EPA has been able to assign about 100 to investigations and enforcement at about 135 sites that may pose imminent hazards. Justice has had only one attorney devoting full time to the problem. The two agencies seem to agree that EPA should have the primary investigative role. Assistant Attorney General James W. Moorman testified recently, though, that an effective EPA force should include not only more pollution-control experts, but also law-enforcement agents skilled in tracking down surreptitious "midnight dumpers" and the organized-crime elements allegedly involved in some hazardous-waste operations.
Besides more manpower, EPA and Justice need more authority to find out what companies have been dumping and problems they may have found. The Justice Department is unable to subpoena such information until a grand jury has been convened or a civil suit filed. In the Love Canal case, for instance, Justice was unable to get internal documents directly from the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation-but the material was released by congressional subcommittee, which had obtained it from the SEC, where it had been filed in connection with a corporate-merger dispute. Surely there must be a less roundabout way for pollution investigators to get valuable information without compromising anyone's position in any future litigation.
Beyond the problems of investigative resources of course, lie immense questions about compensation of pollution victims and the allocation of costs for cleaning up. The Carter administration is preparing major legislation that, among other things, would create a "superfund" based largely on assessments from the generators of hazardous wastes. Because that will require extensive review, Congress would do well to detach the questions of investigative manpower and authority and bolster those capabilities now.