The Environmental Protection Agency has asked President Carter to find room in his budget for multi-million-dollar health studies on the people living near the Love Canal toxic waste dump in New York.
The request, now being negotiated with the Office of Management and Budget, also involves a possible health effects survey of residents of the Frayser area of Memphis, Tenn., who claim problems from a waste dump that so far has not been located.
The funding would mean a policy shift, but EPA sources said the agency considers the need so pressing that it hopes to win approval from OMB as early as the end of next week.
Residents of the Love Canal and Memphis areas have complained of higher-than-normal rates of miscarriages, cancer, respiratory problems and skin diseases. More than 940 families have been moved out of the Love Canal area, the majority in the wake of a controversial study that claimed to have found some evidence of chromosome damage in residents' blood tissue.
But most of the studies are either sketchy or under fire for their methodologies. Trying earlier to provide a way of dealing with what it saw as a growing need, EPA requested $20 million for the 1980 fiscal year to conduct health studies of people near toxic waste dumps, but OMB rejected the request leaving such studies in the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services.
But HHS has balked at providing funds for the studies. A two-year survey at Love Canal by HHS's National Institute of Environmental Health Services is in the planning stages, but so far has not been funded.
The NIEHS study would cost $3 million to $6 million. Surveying the Memphis families would add $2 million, and additional provisions could bring the total supplementary request to around $9 million, according to EPA sources.
The agency is aware that it is setting precedents with each step it takes in dealing with Love Canal. "The whole government is just now coming to realize the scope of this task," said EPA's research administrator, Stephen J. Gage. "In every case we have to do the best possible studies and the most sophisticated environmental assessments so that we can allay public fear as well as identify the wastes."
A high disease rate still must be compared with other area rates and alternative causes checked before anything can be done now, Gage said, and then a range of remedies must be considered.
The EPA has pinned most of its hopes for dealing with the toxic dump problem on legislation scheduled for markup today in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
It would set up an $800 million "superfund" to provide compensation for the victims of such dumps for out-of-pocket medical costs, crop and other economic damage and possible relocation costs. A House version of the measure provides $1.2 billion. Both approaches would assess the chemical firms for the bulk of the fund, with some contribution from the federal government. The dumping companies would be held liable for damages, with some exceptions.
Such a fund would provide relief for those affected by waste sites, while the government would retain the option to sue for recovery of the money from the companies, according to its supporters. Opponents argue that the fund unconstitutionally would require innocent businesses today to pay for the sins of past firms, and that would open the floodgates to possible spurious claims.
Neither bill, however, would provide funding for the health studies required in every dumping case.
A study by the Library of Congress released last week by Sens. John Culver (D-Iowa) and Robert Stafford (R-Vt.) found that only a small fraction of the persons who claim sickness or injury from toxic wastes are ever able to collect in the courts.
Analyzing 3,600 incidents, the 500-page report found that $120,000 had been granted in Michigan and Ohio, in suits that sought $59 million. "Legal mechanisms in the states studied are generally inadequate for redressing toxic substances-related harm," the senators said.