THE FEDERAL government is offering $33 million to buy the whole town of Times Beach, Mo. That's a decent and effective response, but it will work only in a case like this one, of intense and highly local pollution. It's possible to buy out a village with a population of 2,400. But dioxin was also sprayed, less heavily, over much wider areas of the state.
The Times Beach episode began 12 years ago when horses suddenly began to die on a breeding farm in the area. The cause was traced to the oil that had been thrown on the dirt to keep the dust down. The same mixture had been sprayed elsewhere--on dirt roads, for example--by a man whose business was collection of waste oil from service stations and, occasionally, other wastes from industrial plants. Soil samples were sent to the federal Center for Disease Control. It was three years before the CDC was able to identify the active agent as dioxin, a rare but extremely powerful poison. That led to the source, a small company manufacturing a chemical disinfectant. The dioxin was a waste product.
Before the issue of liability went much further, the company went out of business. There the matter rested for some years, apparently because state and federal authorities were under the impression that the dioxin would rapidly decompose in the earth. But retesting last year showed that, unfortunately, it was not decomposing.
The events at Times Beach illustrate clearly both the importance of controlling chemical wastes and the technical difficulty. It is work that sometimes, as in this case, makes demands that even excellent laboratories cannot easily meet and requires answers that even highly trained chemists cannot quickly provide. While it is true that larger budgets do not necessarily guarantee better scientific work, it's pretty safe to assume that steadily smaller budgets aren't going to improve things. The Reagan administration has cut the Environmental Protection Agency's funds for hazardous waste programs by 20 percent over the past two years. Those cuts are altogether unwise. As Congress looks into the internal affairs of the EPA, it needs to go beyond the accusations of scandal and look more carefully at the resources of the agency and whether they are commensurate with the public responsibilities that Congress itself has established.
For Times Beach, the buy-out provides compensation to people at least for their property losses. But, like the asbestos cases, it is another reminder that the country does not have an orderly and reliable system of compensation for the damage that dangerous pollution can inflict.