The Reagan administration has set up a high-level working group, under the Cabinet council headed by Interior Secretary James G. Watt, to explore the possibility of using federal lands to store hazardous waste generated by private industry.
The idea has been floated periodically within the Environmental Protection Agency for nearly a decade, on the grounds that public protests have made it virtually impossible for industries to find waste sites on their own. It has been shot down each time, largely by the argument that taxpayers should not be expected to shoulder the burden of private industry's garbage.
But administration officials confirmed yesterday that the concept will be considered again at the suggestion of presidential counselor Edwin Meese III.
"Ed Meese suggested that we at least look at the federal inventory of lands," said Joshua Muss, head of the federal Property Review Board, which has been put in charge of government land sales.
"The first thing we need to do is look at the criteria to find out what would make an appropriate toxic waste dump," Muss said. "Vast areas in the West have been declared surplus, military installations and such. We have no specific candidates, but ideally that's the kind of property we're looking at."
Meese declined to claim credit for the proposal yesterday, although he said it may have been his idea to set up the hazardous waste working group.
"I can't place that whole thing," he said. "I appreciate them giving me credit for the idea. I'm always glad to claim credit for a good idea, but I can't do it in this case."
EPA officials said yesterday that the proposal would be controversial. They suggested, however, that the alternative--allowing industry to run out of places to put its wastes--was not much more attractive.
"Is it any less fraught with controversy than the fact that in all of New England there is no licensed waste facility?" asked Phillip Angell, an aide to EPA Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus. "We've reached the point where you can stop any site in the nation, and you've got to put the stuff somewhere."
But critics immediately condemned the proposal as counterproductive, and warned that the move will put Watt in ultimate control of a large piece of the government's hazardous waste policy.
According to a draft letter establishing the working group, which will include representatives from 10 Cabinet-level departments, five White House offices, the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences, it will be charged with "developing recommendations for administration initiatives to address hazardous waste."
The recommendations would be handed up to Watt's Cabinet Coun- cil on Natural Resources and the Environment for consideration.
"James Watt was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the chief policy man for hazardous waste," said Hugh B. Kaufman, an EPA hazardous waste specialist and outspoken agency critic.
Other EPA officials also expressed concern, noting that an EPA initiative for a national ground water policy died in the Cabinet council when the interior secretary vetoed it as a potential infringement of states' rights.
But an Interior spokesman said that the administration considered toxic waste "a top priority, and that naturally falls in the Cabinet council." And Lee Thomas, who will head the working group as director of the EPA's hazardous waste programs, said that Ruckelshaus "thinks the working group is a good concept."
Thomas conceded, however, that the idea of federally owned waste sites poses thorny problems, including the question of liability for any health hazards.
It would also appear to be at odds with President Reagan's free-market philosophy at a time when the administration has been working to turn over government responsibilities to the private sector.
"That's obviously an issue you have to deal with," said Thomas. "We may find down the road other siting alternatives."
But EPA officials sought to dispel fears that the proposal would allow private industry to create more dangerous waste sites at a time when Congress and the public are clamoring for cleanup.
Angell said he understood that the group would be looking only at sites that had already been contaminated by waste from federal installations, and Thomas said the proposal would not include new landfills.
"Long-term storage is what we're talking about," he said.
But a Republican congressional aide familiar with the nation's hazardous waste laws suggested that the benefits of federal sites would likely be "more illusory than real."
"As a practical matter, it probably would circumvent all of the state and local zoning laws which are the real impediment to hazardous waste sites now," he said.
"But until they execute everybody in this country, it's still going to be run by the people. They think they can try some legal hijinks and get around the emotions of this issue. They can't."