Another episode of trash without a home is unfolding, this time in New Jersey, where the state is trying to stash 15,000 drums of radioactive soil in a nature preserve over the strenuous objections of nearby residents, environmental groups and Interior Secretary Donald Hodel.

The drums have been in a state warehouse and a Montclair, N.J., neighborhood for more than three years while state officials searched frantically for a permanent disposal site. Under court order to remove the drums as a "traffic hazard," the state is eyeing Colliers Mills Wildlife Preserve, a remote nature sanctuary in Ocean County, N.J.

But the plan created an uproar in New Jersey when announced last week, and Hodel stepped in yesterday to note that the proposed site is part of the Pinelands National Reserve, jointly administered by state and federal agencies to protect the state's famed Pine Barrens and strictly off-limits to toxic dumping.

"I want to emphasize that I clearly am opposed to the storage of toxic material in this federally assisted reserve," Hodel wrote to New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean (R).

Through a spokesman, Kean said the radioactive material, which came from a federal Superfund site, is not dangerous. "The administration considers the material neither hazardous nor toxic, nor does it violate the provisions of the Pinelands Act," spokesman John Samerjan said.

Like New York's wandering garbage barge, the drums have become refugees in an increasingly acrimonious war over waste disposal. Two states and several New Jersey communities have rejected the waste, which is fast becoming a major political problem for Kean, elected in part because of his pro-environment stance.

The soil was excavated around several houses in Montclair, West Orange and Glen Ridge, N.J., where housing developments were built on what apparently was a dump for a radium-dial factory more than 50 years ago.

Environmental Protection Agency officials said more than 400 houses in the area have shown unsafe levels of gamma radiation from the decaying radium wastes. In 1983, the federal Centers for Disease Control recommended correcting the problem within two years.

"It seemed to us that, inasmuch as the contamination was relatively close to the surface, the feasible way to correct it was to dig it up, get it out of there and restore the properties to the proper contour," said Jim Marshall, an official at EPA's regional office in New York.

Most of the houses are awaiting action under the federal Superfund toxic-cleanup law, but the state decided to start cleanup on a dozen of the most heavily contaminated houses. A permit was secured to take the contaminated soil to a low-level radioactive waste facility in Nevada.

"Halfway through, the state had accumulated 15,000 drums, and suddenly Nevada said, 'We don't want New Jersey waste here,' " Marshall said. Neither did Washington state, where public opposition to radioactive waste has increased sharply because of the state's candidacy for a high-level nuclear dump.

The state came up with alternate plans: Mix the waste with uncontaminated dirt and dump it in northern New Jersey, or stash it in a armory in West Orange. Each time, public opposition thwarted the plan.

Not even a $7.5 million appropriation voted by Congress last year as a "storage fee" for any community willing to take the drums has attracted takers.

Marshall said the EPA has no objections to the Colliers Mills site, which he described as a "remote, wooded area."

"Putting the drums in a remote location does not seem to us to be a threat to public health and the environment, so we don't see it as a bad thing," he said.

Environmentalists and area residents said they see things quite differently, and Marshall acknowledged that few believe the state's promise that the site would be used only temporarily until a long-term storage site is found.

"There's quite an uproar in that part of the state," he said. "Citizens are putting railroad ties across all the bridges."