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Toxic mess: policing to blame, or the very laws?

While much attention now focuses on lax enforcement of United States laws to control toxic wastes, the laws themselves may be letting the country down. This danger is stressed in a report by Congress's Office of Technology Assessment. Also, OTA warns, present regulations encourage, rather than inhibit , the spread of unsafe toxic waste dumps.

At present 255 to 275 million metric tons (tonnes) of hazardous waste which come under state or federal rules are generated annually. Federal rules cover about 40 million tonnes of this waste. (Producers who generate less than a tonne of waste per month are exempt from control.)

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OTA notes ominously that ''millions of tonnes of (such) federally exempted hazardous waste disposed in sanitary landfills pose substantial risks.''

Then the agency raises a crucial question. Is perpetual care of toxic wastes in landfills, well regulated or not, the wisest policy? Some 80 percent of regulated waste is buried on land - waste that sometimes remains virulent for centuries. OTA warns that land disposal ''creates the risk of contaminating the environment, particularly ground water. . . .''

Present US policies encourage such disposal. For one thing, the cost to waste generators is artificially low because the long-term costs of monitoring and eventual cleanup are taken by the government or society as a whole, OTA notes. Also, fees that support the Superfund for toxic dump cleanup are imposed according to the amount of materials chemical or petrochemical companies process. They are not assessed on the volume of waste produced or the degree of its hazard.

OTA notes that such policies do not encourage alternative measures such as waste reduction and waste treatment at the plant. It asks: ''Can unnecessary risks and future cleanup costs be eliminated by limiting the use of land disposal and by making alternatives more attractive?''

The National Academy of Sciences raises the same question in a new study of its own on the research needs of toxic waste management. Its report says: ''There currently exists some technology or combination of technologies capable of dealing with every hazardous industrial waste in a manner that eliminates the need for perpetual storage.''

When OTA issued its report last month, Rep. John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan and Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey filed legislation to tighten up the rules. It would remove the small-quantity exemption, for example. But the larger issue of whether to encourage alternatives to land disposal remains.

Congress should take a tough-minded look at this issue. Encouraging the use of alternatives would mean revamping rules to penalize land disposal. And tax breaks or other incentives would be needed to make waste reduction, recycling, and treatment at the source more attractive. Such measures are now used widely where they're known to be money savers. But with some wastes, the costs may be greater than companies can justify without inflationary price increases for their products. Research to develop waste treatment also needs federal support.

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It will not be easy for Congress, or the administration, to face up to the need for more federal spending in this area. Yet, as OTA notes, ''years or decades from now, cleaning up a (landfill) site and compensating victims might cost 10 to 100 times today's costs of preventing releases of hazardous wastes.'' Fighting fire with fire

Ecologists who study fire-prone areas have long wondered whether fire prevention can be carried too far. This may well be true in southern California.

Here, the flammable scrub, called chaparral, frequently burns out of control. Geographer Richard A. Minnich of the University of California, Riverside, has suggested in Science that human intervention has upset the balance of an ecological system in which wildfire plays a natural role.

Studying satellite photos of southern California and the adjacent region of Baja California for the period 1972 to 1980, he finds a key difference. In sparsely populated Baja regions where wildfires burn naturally, the extent of any one fire is substantially less than one in California.

It seems that, under natural conditions, fire keeps chaparral growth itself under control. Thus the fuel for any one fire is limited. In southern California , on the other hand, where many fires are quickly put out, chaparral can grow rankly.

Minnich suggests that a carefully planned program of controlled burning to simulate the natural role of wildfire would cut the risk of conflagrations. This would literally be using fire to control fire. Intergalactic chemistry

Infrared (heat radiation) sensors on IRAS, the infrared astronomical satellite, have detected the signatures of chemical elements in distant galaxies.

IRAS scientists had wondered whether the instruments would have enough resolving power to pick out the spectral lines of elements over intergalactic distances. Early data from the satellite - launched Jan. 25 as part of a joint Europe-US project - show the spectral lines of both sulfur and neon 3, a form of the element neon.

A spectral line is an emission of energy by atoms of an element within a narrow band of wavelengths. In this case, the emission is at infrared wavelengths. IRAS has very sharply recorded such lines from the galaxy NGC 891, about 15 million light-years from Earth, according to astronomer Richard Jennings at Britain's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Early IRAS data have also shown what may be newly born stars within our own galaxy in the constellation Perseus.

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