Tough new rules and aggressive public posturing on hazardous waste disposal in the United States mask a serious problem, environmentalists say.
The problem: trying to do more with less.
The Reagan administration is proposing to cut federal grants to states for their hazardous waste programs by 20 percent in fiscal 1983. Yet states responding to a recent National Governors' Association survey indicated that the federal money constituted 50 percent of their expenditures on hazardous waste.
According to the governors' association report, only 11 of the responding states hoped to be able to make up part of the federal cutbacks. Some hinted they might drop their waste-control programs rather than take on full responsibility for funding them.
About 130 billion pounds of toxic wastes are generated each year in the US, 80 billion of which is dumped in one way or another, according to the estimates of various environmental interest sources. Some call hazardous waste the most frightening problem facing the US, short of nuclear war.
So in mid-July, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its long-awaited final rules on toxic waste dumpsites, it was with glowing praise for their thoroughness. Even disposal industry sources called them more rigorous than expected.
The more than 500 pages of regulations affect hazardous waste landfills and are expected to cost industry at least $1 billion a year to comply with, EPA officials contend. Moreover, new landfills will have to be lined with impermeable material to retard seepage. Both new and existing sites are subject to monitoring, and closed sites not only must be capped but also monitored for up to 30 years.
Some states, too, adopt a tough stance on the transportation and disposal of wastes. California, New Jersey, and New York generally are acknowledged as leaders in the fight.
Now Massachusetts is bidding for leadership. State officials here announced July 22 a ''strike force'' of armed agents who will investigate and, if necessary, arrest waste law violators. About 70 agents already had been sent secretly into the field when the announcement was made.
The state has been active on two other fronts.
A new set of regulations governing waste disposal went into effect July 1, chiefly establishing a ''truckload by truckload'' tracking system. The aim is to enable the state to trace each shipment from its point of origin to point of disposal. A standardized manifest, or shipping document, must accompany each truckload of waste, and a copy must be sent to the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE).
A second set of regulations, aimed at waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities is expected to be adopted this fall.
At the same time, Massachusetts Gov. Edward J. King (D) is seeking legislation that, among other things, would force parties responsible for contaminating a disposal site to pay three times the amount the state spends to clean it up. It also would impose fines of up to $25,000 for disposal law violations.
Earlier this summer New Hampshire sent a message to careless and illegal waste dumpers in the form of $14.1 million in fines against persons and businesses connected with a particularly flagrant dumpsite.
Such measures are well and good, say outspoken environmentalists, but too often they lack the muscle needed to make them work. The EPA itself is systematically being destroyed by the Reagan administration, they contend, and already has lost valuable research capability at college laboratories around the country.
This means, says Judith Kunofsky, director of pollution control programs for the Sierra Club, that ''undergraduates are turning to other research . . . (and) you lose the ability to turn them on again once a more sympathetic administration is in office.''
David Lennett, staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, concedes that progress in the war against toxic wastes is being made - ''on the paper work level.
''If you look at where we were five years ago, there's reason to be hopeful, '' he says. ''But the problem has certainly not been solved.''
Mr. Lennett is particularly critical of the so-called ''cradle-to-grave'' tracking of wastes and inspections of generators.
As matters stand now, Lennett says, federal and state agencies dealing with waste management are capable of carrying out thorough inspections of waste generators only once every 25 years. Indeed, EPA assistant administrator Rita Lavelle instructed the agency's regional offices in June that to comply with existing federal laws, ''You should request the states to (inspect) 4 percent of the generators and transporters'' in fiscal 1983.
The shipping manifests for hazardous waste cargoes so heavily relied upon by states for tracking purposes usually must be held only three years by generators and haulers - after which they may be destroyed, Lennett notes.
That could leave the only remaining copies in state files. There are roughly 63,000 generators and transporters of wastes nationally, he says, and shipping across state lines is common. Assuming the generators and shippers forward the required copies of the manifests, he questions whether many states have enough personnel or the data-processing base necessary to cope with such a heavy flow of information.
Ms. Kunofsky is even more dubious about the program. ''I suspect that it will be all (the states) can do in just getting the reports,'' she says. ''Even in California, which has one of the best records, nobody's sending them in.''
She agrees that tracking programs may work in some states, but argues that even so they mainly confirm environmentalists' fears - that the wastes are still ending up in landfills. Opponents contend that landfills are the least desirable option for disposal since all of them will eventually leak.
Still another potential flaw in the enforcement strategy, environmentalists and educators agree, is a continuous flow of qualified, college-trained young people into the field.
Says DEQE Commissioner Anthony Cortese: ''I'm not satisfied (that there will be enough people). I believe that the federal government has got to spend more money - and industry as well, by the way - to fund more basic research and provide training grants to universities to train the kinds of professionals that we need to be able to deal with this problem.''
Clemson University Prof. Thomas Overkamp calls environmental studies as they relate to hazardous wastes ''an evolving field'' that many students get into ''sideways'' rather than by design and that still has the reputation for not being ''academically rigorous.''