A former environmental official looks at the Superfund's future.

The bugles have sounded. The chase is on. Congressional staff and Washington press have their juices flowing. The public doubtless is dizzied by all the news on EPA, Anne Burford, Rita Lavelle, and "Superfund." Yet a suspicion arises that perspective is missing. Where is all this headed? What does it mean for the administration of the program at the center of debate: Superfund? When the furor subsides, it will remain as a major and troublesome challenge.

When the environmental movement shifted into high gear in the early 1970s, pollution control focused on discharges into the air and water. Both the public and the government overlooked what happened to the pollutants so expensively removed from smokestacks and outfalls. Slowly it was recognized that many of those substances were going right back into the environment, through careless disposal of wastes.

In 1976, Congress enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to fill that gap with a regulatory framework governing disposal of all solid and hazardous wastes. Even that statute left a gap, however, since it did not address problems inherited from the past--abandoned waste disposal sites.

To meet this remaining need, Congress in 1980 enacted the Superfund legislation. It established a fund of $1.6 billion for use in cleaning up old waste sites where no responsible party could be found. It also imposed a retroactive liability on any company whose hazardous wastes had been disposed of at any site.

As the government interprets the law, that liability could cover the entire cost of cleaning up a site even though the firm that generated the waste might have had no involvement in operating the site and might have committed no negligence in handling its own wastes, and even though its wastes might be only a fraction of the wastes disposed of at that site.

Despite this huge fund and sweeping legal authority, the government confronts immense problems in running the program. These problems result from total inexperience--the absence of data about specific sites, the weak scientific understanding of the migration of ground water (which, unlike surface water, usually moves at rates of inches per year, rather than miles per day), the small number of trained staff at all levels of government, and the newness of these regulatory mechanisms.

Operating under these conditions, the lawyers' prescription--sue all the generators of waste!--is not especially helpful. At first, bringing a lot of lawsuits does seem to mark progress. But after the suits are filed, all the hard questions remain.

In the end, litigation usually evolves toward a negotiated settlement--the result always favored, and often compelled, by the courts. Sometimes that result is expedited by litigation. Often it is not. In 1979, for example, the government filed suit against Hooker Chemical Co. with respect to Love Canal; a final resolution still is nowhere in sight.

It is equally misleading to think that the practical problems could be made to disappear if one could simply generate sufficient public pressure to force a solution. There is no doubt that public pressures have provided the great thrust for environmental protection, but that is no substitute for answers to critical questions.

The bitter truth is that there is no rabbit in the hat. There will be no quick elimination of ground water problems caused by abandoned waste dump sites. These problems were 40 years in the making. They are not going to be solved overnight.

When the shouting is over, the fundamental facts of these old abandoned dump sites are going to remain:

The sheer number of sites where potentially significant contamination exists is exceedingly high--presumably in the thousands.

In nearly all cases, information concerning whose wastes, what types of wastes, and what quantities of wastes were dumped at each site will be very sketchy.

Data on what contaminants, if any, are migrating away from the dump sites (and in what concentrations, in what directions and how far) will be virtually nonexistent.

Prospects for actual exposure of human beings to any such contaminants, and the potential health risks of such exposure, will be entirely speculative.

Finally, methodologies available to remove or control such contaminants will require extensive engineering analysis.

What clearly is required is an intensive effort by government to gather information, establish responsibilities, make difficult balancing judgments and command vigorous clean-up actions. The irony is that none of these practical needs or problems is being addressed, or even mentioned, in the current intensive debate.

To the extent that the congressional scrutiny causes greater government resources to be mobilized for this effort, reestablishes public confidence in the integrity of decision- making or reaffirms the public commitment to environmental cleanup, it will contribute to the success of this program.

.But to the extent that it intensifies the emotionalism of the issue, raises unrealistic public expectations for immediate solutions, forces public officials to shortcut thorough analysis before major decisions are made, or pushes the enforcement methodology away from legitimate settlement negotiations and onto the backlog of overburdened court calendars, the present furor may have negative effects.

It will require wisdom, focus and restraint for the congressional investigations to be completed in a manner that is helpful to the long- term needs of the program. We have not seen those qualities yet in the present consuming absorption with the titillating details.