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Congress finally tackles toxic waste

For years, legislation to help clean up the nation's thousands of potentially dangerous toxic chemical dumps has wound up in a political disposal site of its own on Capitol Hill.

One bill was buried at the end of the last Congress after a squabble between the Senate and House of Representatives. Another took nearly a year to move from one House subcommittee to another. A proposal from President Carter has languished before Congress since last summer.

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But now lawmakers show signs of growing ready to attack both the hazards -- chemical and political -- and enact a cleanup law.

A bill that never got out of subcommittee last year cleared the House commerce committee last week en route to action soon by the full House.

More sweeping legislation is scheduled to be drafted into final form beginning May 22 by two Senate environmental subcommittees.

The bills would set up a multimillion-dollar fund, financed at least in part by fees on the chemical industry, to pay for emergency cleanups. Money drawn from the fund would be reimbursed by the company doing the improper dumping, unless responsibility cannot be fixed.

The Hosue legislation provides a fund of $600 million, half of it raised from the industry. The government share already is incorporated into the House's version of the tight federal budget for the coming fiscal year.

The Senate is considering a $500 million fund, with coverage broadened to damaged caused by any toxic substance, including nuclear waste.

Chemical manufacturers oppose cleanup-fund legislation, charging that it amounts to "the lynching of the chemical industry."

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But Congress appears to be prodded into action by continuing revelations on the Love Canal tragedy and growing evidence on the nationwide scope of the this dark legacy of the chemical revolution.

In the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls, N.Y., where two chemical firms dumped 20,000 tons of highly toxic pesticides and solvents more than 20 years ago, 239 families were evacuated in 1978 because of a health emergency.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to announce May 21 whether it will order relocationg 710 additional families.

The number of chemical dump sites in the United States is variously estimated from 3,300 (by the House commerce committee) to as many as 50,000 (by the EPA).

A sizable proportion -- one-third, reckons the commerce committee -- is abandoned, now underlying private homes, gardens, nurseries, parking lots, tennis courts, and other well-used facilities.

An EPA official calls the problem "a string of chemical time bombs literally strewn across the nation."

The amount of potent chemicals being dumped in the American landscape grows daily -- 126 billion pounds of hazardous wastes being added this year.

Ninety percent of the waste now being dumped in the disposed of in what the EPA terms "an environmentally unsound manner." The agency has a "hit list" of dump sites to be investigated, numbering at last count 4,598.

Deadly leakage from improperly buried chemicals, as shown by Love Canal and dozens of subsequent incidents in virtually every state, imperils lives, health, property, and about one-half of the country's drinking water.

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