Taking a cue from the citizen posse of western lore, the Sierra Club and Environmental Action have started a nationwide citizen hunt for hazardous waste dumps.

Most everyone -- industry, government, environmentalists -- agree that the country has a serious problem with dumps containing highly toxic industrial wastes, mostly chemicals.

The problem is that no one is certain how many there are, how perilous they are or even where they are.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that there may be as many as 32,000 unregulatged dimps, some active and some abandoned, around the country.

A house subcommittee headed by Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.) last year conducted a survey of industrial dumping sites and came up with more than 3,300 -- about 30 percent of which are closed and not monitored by pubic health agencies.

Enter the Sierra Club and Environmental Action. They are distributing "Hunt the Dump" handbooks to activist organizations around the country to pressure for more official monitoring and control of such dumps.

Their aim, according to Sierra's A. Blakeman Early, is to awaken concern in communities that may face severe problems in te future from unregulated dumps for toxic substances.

"We want to raise the boiling temperature of the whole issue," Early said. "And we think these local groups can add to the data produced by the Eckhardt subcommittee."

He added, "Until there was major congressional scrutiny of the issue, the federal attitude was that they had no money and couldn't deal with it."

"We feel that by the time federal regulations are out and a fund to govern cleanup is set up, we'll be far down the road. We need local action now and we think industries will be more forthcoming if they know local citizens are watching them."

Unlike the storied posses of the West, the dump hunters are not supposed to string up the villians. But they are supposed to give them a hard time.

The handbook provides step-by-step instructions for collecting information, identifying dump sites, meeting with company officials, stimulating citizen protests and geting local officials to act.

And unlike any posse you ever heard of, the dump-hunters are urged to take one more step after finding their quarry: Raise hell with their senators and Congress members.

"We're going to ask some hard questions," Early said.