A mid-course correction is needed in that major piece of environmental legislation called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (or ''Superfund''), which Congress enacted in 1980.
As it stands, the law provides for a $1.6 billion fund raised largely through taxes on producers of chemical and petroleum products. The Environmental Protection Agency uses this money to identify and clean up hazardous wastes and waste sites. The Superfund is not due for reauthorization until 1985, but the US House recently approved a massive expansion of the law by increasing taxes and raising the fund's level to $10.2 billion.
Instances of toxic-waste contamination at Love Canal in New York State and at Times Beach, Mo., have brought a greater sense of urgency to the problem the Superfund is designed to correct or alleviate. The public mood on the subject of hazardous waste leaves little room for patience - but much opportunity for emotional responses. The same holds true, to a large extent, for the mood of Congress.
Moreover, public sentiment is helped little by the fact that the human health effects of many toxic substances, such as the various forms of dioxin, are not fully known and are subject to debate. Safe levels of some substances can now be measured by the EPA in terms of parts per billion, if not quadrillion - making our sense of the health hazards akin to searching for the proverbial needle in a cosmic haystack.
What is needed is less emotion on the subject of hazardous waste, especially a more clear-headed view of waste-disposal problems in the United States. Because definitions vary among levels of government, estimates of the amount of hazardous waste disposed of each year in the US range from 30 million to 255 million metric tons. Most of this waste is buried in landfills because incineration, the safest and most effective means of disposal, is roughly 10 times as costly. Even so, government and industry spend an estimated $4.5 billion each year to manage toxic wastes. The annual price tag by 1990 is projected to reach $12 billion (in 1981 dollars).
Experts agree that using landfill is inherently unsafe, if for no other reason than that they are only storage sites. They also concur that there are not enough of them. The EPA estimates that 22,000 waste sites now exist in the US, and fully 10 percent of them are believed to be dangerous and leaking.
The result: not enough reliable, environmentally safe places to dump toxic substances. Although EPA wants to clean up as many landfills as possible, it has very little choice of where to put the material it removes under the Superfund mandate. Taxpayers may wind up paying for the costly removal of waste from one site across the country, only to find later on that they have to pay again for removing it from yet another dangerous site. Merely throwing money at the problem will not help. EPA reports that it can reasonably and efficiently spend only $5 billion on cleanup over the next five years. Increasing the Superfund to more than $10 billion is not the answer.
One reason for the scarcity of hazardous-waste sites is the ''Not in My Backyard'' phenomenon. Sites for toxic substance disposal have joined prisons and mental hospitals as items that we all in general want, but not too close by. What is the answer? One method, strange as it may seem, is to provide financial incentives to get the acquiescence of the population of an area near a disposal site, while ensuring all possible safety. Another alternative is to use Superfund money more effectively to establish additional disposal facilities, whether landfills or incinerators.
The fact remains that continued public opposition to virtually every means of disposing of toxic substances will inevitably lead to disrupting the manufacture of needed products. Unfortunately, this could also lead to more illegal and dangerous ''midnight dumping'' of chemicals.
The Superfund mandates that a tax be levied on producers of ''feedstocks'' in the chemical and oil industries, and 88 percent of all funds are collected this way (the rest comes from the federal government). Consequently, thousands of other disposers wind up paying nothing.
Taxing producers rather than polluters does little to curb the actual dumping of waste. A waste-end fee on hazardous-waste disposal would be more economically sound. It would (1) provide an incentive to reduce the actual output of waste, ( 2) promote development of recycling and reuse systems, (3) encourage alternative disposal technologies, and (4) cover the disposal of products produced overseas. In short, rewriting the Superfund law so that it is more fair would also help protect the environment - and would probably save money at the same time.
The hazardous-waste-disposal problem is not going to disappear unless Americans radically change their life styles. Until then, greater understanding is needed on the part of the public and a willingness to come to grips with important features of the problems arising from the production and use of hazardous substances.
In legislating in this area, Congress must come to realize that the fundamental shortcoming is not the availability of money to clean up hazardous wastes. Rather, it is our unwillingness as a nation to accept the location of new disposal locations adequate to our production demands - or to look upon environmental pollution not as a sinful act, but as an activity costly to society but susceptible to economic incentives.