Faced with the almost impossible task of finding places to bury the nation's hazardous chemical wastes, a Houston company thought it had a bright idea: Look to the Indian reservations.
If anything, however, the fallout from its search for such a site in Indian country has caused even more of a stir than is normal for this controversy-prone industry.
''Sometime back we got the idea that Indian tribes with suitable land might be interested,'' acknowledges Don Fitch, spokesman for Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), the nation's largest publicly held waste-management concern.
Mr. Fitch says the basic premise was that locating on a reservation might avert adamant local opposition - a problem that has dogged the industry since the tragedy at Love Canal. There, in upstate New York, disclosures of adverse health effects among families living near an abandoned chemical waste dump created strong resistance. Since then, communities where dump sites have been proposed have been so opposed that not one such facility has been successfully built in the United States.
As a result, there have been increasing reports of illicit disposal of dangerous substances, which pose even greater threats to public health and safety than do properly run waste facilities.
Says BFI's Fitch: ''We saw the possibility of solving two problems: (1) finding a good, safe disposal site; and (2) providing a good income source for Indian tribes.''
Not everyone, however, saw the company's motives in such a charitable light.
After querying a number of tribes last year, the waste management firm found a possible site: the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation, spread over Nevada, California, and Arizona. Citing the reservation's 75 percent unemployment rate and other economic problems resulting from federal cutbacks, the tribal council authorized negotiations with BFI.
''I think they approached the matter legitimately. They were not trying to be shysters,'' volunteers Tom Fredericks, the lawyer who represented the Indians in this matter.
But news of the negotiations touched off a tempestuous local controversy.
The tribal councils on the three reservations downstream from Fort Mojave on the Colorado River passed resolutions opposing the site because they were worried about possible contamination of the river. Nevada Gov. Robert F. List categorized the plan as ''a flagrant attempt to circumvent state regulations and to avoid public comment on the issue.'' Rumors began circulating that BFI was offering tribes millions of dollars if they would accept such a site.
Mr. Fitch dismisses charges of million-dollar payoffs as ''absurd,'' and Mr. Fredericks reports that BFI's unwillingness to provide money ''up front'' for environmental monitoring was one reason the tribe finally decided in April against accepting such a facility.
Allegations that BFI saw a reservation location as a way to circumvent potential state and local roadblocks and regulations are more persistent, however.
''I think they thought of the reservation as something of a haven, until the negotiations were under way and they realized the extent of federal oversight and the fact that the tribe, being particularly environmentally conscious, would also have passed regulations controlling their operations,'' Mr. Fredericks says.
A ''back door'' approach is how Ray Jackson, in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) Real Properties Service Office in Phoenix, Ariz., describes BFI's dealings at Fort Mojave: ''They tried to keep everything very hush-hush. They also tried to set it up so the tribe would operate the facility, thinking that would avoid the necessity of getting BIA approval,'' he charges.
Mr. Fitch objects, claiming that BFI had no intention of avoiding any regulations, either state or federal: ''He is speculating on a deal that was never consummated.''
Ultimately, opposition to the idea both on and off the reservation proved too strong. The controversy over the issue led to the recall of the tribal chairman who OK'd the negotiations. And BFI claims it has given up, at least for now, on the search for a reservation site.