YOU DON'T SEE the stories of chemical explosions, seeping clouds of gas or leaking chemical dumps as often as you did two years ago when Love Canal made chemical waste front-page news. But if you think the danger has receded, or even gotten less acute, you had better think again.
Something in the neighborhood of 130 billion pounds of hazardous wastes will be produced this year. But though it has been five years since Congress enacted the law that was finally to provide for proper disposal of these wastes through a new system of "cradle to grave" accounting and the establishment for the first time of standards for safe facilities, the practical reality is that most waste disposal is still being carried out under the same (mostly nonexistent) rules that produced Valley of the Drums, Love Canal and countless other less well-known but equally poisonous disasters.
Congress originally gave the Environmental Protection Agency 18 months to issue regulations putting the 1976 law into effect. That was not enough time, but the legislators apparently felt the urgency of the problem warranted an all-out effort. After regulations were issued, existing facilities would have to apply for permits in order to stay in business and would then be assigned timetables for improving their facilities to meet the new standards. At least then--the thinking went--the country would have the measure of the potential health and environmental threat it was facing. That was the idea. However, it eventually took more than three years--and a court order--to get the bulk of the regulations into print. Many were issued just as the reins of government were changing hands.
In the past year, Reagan appointees at EPA have succeeded in undoing nearly everything that had been accomplished in the previous four years. Requirements for new or existing ponds, pits and incinerators have been indefinitely deferred, and in the past few weeks action has been started to suspend them formally. EPA says that new standards to replace them cannot be expected for at least 18 months. Meanwhile, no permits will be issued.
Similarly, regulations for landfills, the other major source of danger from hazardous wastes, will not be issued for two years if EPA has its way. Landfills, like the other types of facilities, will operate under the minimal "interim" standards that provide little if any improvement over conditions existing before the law was passed. Insurance requirements for operators of waste disposal facilities--an essential ingredient in regaining public acceptance of these necessary but unwelcome neighbors--have been twice postponed, and recently EPA has indicated that it hopes to kill them altogether.
Many of EPA's planned steps backward are being challenged in court. Whatever the outcome, the courts' power is limited. They can harass and sometimes embarrass the government, but they cannot force an agency to take positive, constructive action. Congress' means of forcing EPA to give life to its law are limited. In other times, committees could threaten the agency with loss of its funds, but not now. This administration would like nothing better than to see EPA's budget cut even more. Ultimately, getting control of hazardous wastes is going to depend on an aroused public opinion.