Clyde Wallace could drive to the spot blindfolded. It's a few miles from here, down an unpaved shortcut through the soybean fields and across the Jones Creek bridge.
The spot is just over the state line in Anson County, N.C., a grassy hill graced now by a Civil War-era farmhouse, a couple of trees and a few somnolent cows. There are plans to build a hazardous waste landfill atop the hill, a few hundred feet from a small stream that runs into Jones Creek and from there to the Great Pee Dee River.
Wallace gets his drinking water from the Pee Dee. So do the other 5,600 residents of Cheraw. They water their gardens with it, cook their food in it. Their children bathe in it.
The town of Cheraw depends on the broad, muddy Pee Dee River for the water that sustains its life. It's a simple fact, and it explains why residents here, and their allies in North Carolina, have fought bitterly against plans to bring hazardous wastes to Anson County.
Their battle is representative of skirmishes going on all over the nation at a time when the mere phrase "hazardous waste" has the power to pack a town council meeting and flood an elected official's mailbox with letters from frightened, angry constituents.
In the last four months, however, what started out as a classic not-in-my-back-yard confrontation over a waste-disposal site has become a broader battle with national implications. At its center are the rules designed to protect the public from the disastrous dumping practices of the past.
In the fine print of the Federal Register, the government's rulebook, the Anson County site's opponents found their strongest argument and confirmed their greatest fears about the future.
Even though it would be built on the high center of a 509-acre property bounded on three sides by small streams that flow into a major drinking water supply, and the bottoms of the waste pits would be no more than seven feet above the ground-water table, the site apparently meets the Environmental Protection Agency's rules for a "secure" landfill.
If those rules will not exclude a disposal site from Anson County's hilltop, opponents here ask, then what will they exclude?
"I asked the EPA regional office in Atlanta how a site seven feet above the water table could be considered safe," said Wallace, an industrial engineer with the Stanley Tools plant in Cheraw. "They said, 'Hell, those regulations say you could build the site in the water table.' "
Last December, under pressure from citizens and state officials, North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt slapped a moratorium on hazardous waste landfills in the state. Hunt said the EPA's regulations, then still in proposed form, were too lax, and that no permits would be approved until the regulations satisfied state concerns.
But less than two months later, the regulations became final without change. Now Hunt faces an even stickier problem: North Carolina law forbids the state from imposing any regulations more stringent than the federal rules, and he's under pressure from industry to provide a nearby site for their chemical wastes.
It was that pressure, residents here say, that led to the choice of the Anson County site in the first place. The county is sparsely populated, largely black and tucked along the rural southern border of the state, where any potential pollution would have its sharpest impact in a neighboring state.
"They came here and said this was the perfect site, but they put a John Doe signature on the land option," said Landon Scarborough, a hardware store owner in the Anson County seat of Wadesboro who heads a local group called CACTUS--Citizens Against Chemical Toxins in Underground Storage.
"They" refers to Chem-Security Systems Inc., owned since last July by Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest waste disposal firm. Residents say that neither Chem-Security nor its new parent company has taken highly a visible role in the fight here, but in public meetings and correspondence Chem-Security officials and their hired representatives have touted the success of another disposal site owned by the company in Arlington, Ore.
In a letter to a Cheraw resident, a lawyer representing Chem-Security pointed out that the firm "has had no problems with fully complying with the laws and regulations there. We fully anticipate the same experience at our proposed site in Anson County."
Scarborough says there is no comparison between the Oregon site and the one in North Carolina.
"The water table there is 600 feet below the surface, in an area with 9 inches of rainfall a year," he said. "We get over 60 inches a year here, and the water table is 10 to 48 feet below the surface.
"There's a flood plain below this site, all the way to the ocean. If that thing overflowed, thousands of acres could be contaminated."
It wouldn't take an overflow to affect Cheraw, however. If contamination seeped into Jones Creek, it would reach the intake pumps for the city water supply in 15 hours.
Not long after that, it would reach the pipes carrying city water into Carolina Canners, a soft-drink bottling company that ships 28 million cases each year throughout North and South Carolina and overseas. The company doesn't have warehouse facilities. Its products are shipped out the day they're bottled.
Officials of Carolina Canners, which opened its plant in Cheraw 15 years ago because of the high quality of the water, say they can't take that chance. If the site is built, the company will spend more than $500,000 to drill wells for its water.
Most of the residents don't have the money for that that option.
The EPA put out its proposed regulations last July, to become effective six months later, under heavy pressure from environmentalists and a federal court to set permanent standards for land disposal sites under the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
In an "issue alert" to the White House in late June, EPA officials said that the Office of Management and Budget considered the rules too stringent, and that industry was likely to object as well. But the agency expected environmentalists to like the standards, and said timely publication was needed because of "the public's sensitivity to the need to prevent 'future Love Canals.' "
As it turned out, a key provision in the regulations drew criticism from almost every quarter. The EPA decided to put the emphasis on detecting and cleaning up any potential landfill leaks, not in preventing the leaks.
As a result, virtually any landfill can pass muster if it is equipped with a synthetic liner and a "leachate" system to collect wastes flushed out of the pit by rainwater or ground water.
Not even the waste disposal industry thought that was a good idea. In comments filed with the agency, the National Solid Waste Management Association noted that a quarter-inch hole in a one-acre liner could discharge 1,000 gallons of liquid leachate a day. "The consequence of holes are such . . . that total reliance on a thin layer of plastic material is unwise," it said.
In its regulations, the EPA acknowledged that "No liner . . . can keep all liquids out of the ground for all time. Eventually liners will either degrade, tear or crack, and will allow liquids to migrate out of the unit." The EPA gave the liners an "active life" of 20 to 40 years.
On both sides of the Carolina line, word that the Pee Dee River was to be protected for up to 40 years by "a garbage bag," as they refer to it, was greeted with shock and fury.
"Plastic is plastic, and anything will break down," he said. "Have they considered that a gopher could bite a hole in it?"
In a meeting in Washington last November, a group of citizens from both Carolinas poured out their concerns to the head of the EPA, then Anne M. Gorsuch. At the least, they argued, the distance between the bottom of a waste pit and the ground-water table ought to be 30 feet or more, far enough away for a leak to be detected and corrective action taken before it's too late.
According to Wallace, Gorsuch told them that such a rule would exclude more than half of North and South Carolina and the entire state of Florida.
"Her position was that every state deserved one," said Wallace. "But we figure that if it can't be made safe, it ought not to be built, even if the whole state is excluded."
Florida's Department of Environmental Regulation, meanwhile, had already filed its comments on the liner-leachate system. "We wholeheartedly disagree," the department told the EPA. "In a state where 92 percent of the population's drinking water is derived from the ground water . . . we have found that it is nearly impossible to clean up subsurface contamination."
That isn't news to Scarborough, who runs CACTUS from a second-floor walk-up decorated with grade-school posters and littered with piles of court documents and scientific reports that tell him the same thing.
"We're saying there should be no underground storage," he said. "Landfills have a track record of disaster throughout the nation. There is no such thing as a safe, secure landfill."
EPA and industry officials disagree, and say that more secure landfills are essential if the nation is to get its hazardous waste problem under control. But their arguments have failed to persuade citizens here.
"We think EPA is in complete disarray and not capable of protecting any environment anywhere," Scarborough said.
Wallace says he agreed with President Reagan's anti-regulatory rhetoric when he cast his ballot in 1980. Now he's not so sure he wants to see the "onus of regulation lessened."
"I thought they meant paperwork," he said. "I didn't know they wanted to dump toxic wastes and sell off the public lands."