EACH DISCOVERY of another dangerous industrial dumping ground somewhere brings more demands for action to clean up the hazards and help people who have been hurt. Many of those demands, and much of the legislation now being discussed, reflect the general view that the federal government should act - and the polluters should pay.
The case for public action is obvious. When poisonous wastes are piled in a warehouse, or oozing from a landfill into water supplies, it would be irresponsible for authorities not to step in to protect public health. And when the threat is immediate, suing the polluter - if he can be found - is much too slow.
But who should act? Regulating waste disposal has been mainly a job for state and local authorities. Recently, though, federal laws have moved quite far into the field. Federal resources have to follow, because the problems now emerging are too costly and technically complex for most state and local governments to handle on their own. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that from 1,200 to 2,000 dumping sites may require urgent attention. There could be many more. The costs of cleanup and safe disposal will be in the multi-billion-dollar range. On top of that is the immense problem of compensating the victims - the people who have been harmed, or forced to move, and now have to worry about illnesses that may develop in 10 or 20 years. Every humanitarian impulse suggests some aid for them. But the potential costs are staggering.
So the scale of the job makes joint action imperative. Who should pay? Should the taxpayers (and the budget) bear the burden of cleaning up what industries have strewn around? The easy answer is no, and a number of plans would force the makers, users and dumpers of hazardous substances to pay. They would do so through fees to finance a national cleanup fund, and through federal suits against those responsible for the pollution in each case.
Punishing the polluter is appropriate where someone has been negligent - for instance, by dumping toxic wastes illegally or by failing to report health threats that later appear. Yet this course is not effective in the worst cases, where the polluter cannot be found or cannot pay the bills. And it is not equitable in those frustrating situations where the waste disposal was done in accord with the laws of the time. In such cases, out of necessity or fairness, the public will have to bear much of the cost.
Using tax dollars at least to launch a general cleanup and compensation fund also seems unavoidable. Perhaps a good share of such a fund could be raised through levies on industry; the Carter administration has proposed one such plan. But as the administration acknowledges, those fees are bound to be passed on through the whole economy. No matter how you arrange it, everyone will ultimately have to pay.