GAUGING the true cost of environmental protection has always been a losing political proposition for those who want to curb pollution and protect natural resources.
It's relatively easy to figure the price of, say, removing highly poisonous dioxins from waste water dumped into a river by a paper mill. New equipment or more costly operating procedures quickly translate into higher prices for a product.
But it's a lot harder to figure the dollar cost of not doing anything about pollution, especially since dirty water and air can impact health and safety over vast areas. What is the loss to New Englanders of acid rain caused by power plants in the Midwest? Or to the health and safety of people in southern California of not imposing stiffer auto-emission limits?
It's even harder to estimate the loss to biodiversity (which ultimately has economic ramifications) of overfishing or manipulating the flow of rivers, as has happened in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
For one thing, true costs often take years to catch up with business or government decisions that may have environmental repercussions. Billions had to be spent repairing flood damage in the Midwest, years after wetlands were drained and river flows diverted to benefit farming. Billions more are needed to clean up after nuclear-weapons production.
To ask if it was worth the cost of reducing DDT, asbestos, or lead paint is to know that the answer is yes. ''What is the worth of a single life?'' is the unanswerable question. To ask it is to end the discussion.
But as Environmental Defense Fund attorney Karen Florini pointed out last week, scientists say there are some 60,000 premature deaths each year attributed to toxics (compared with 35,000 deaths from firearms). Are some of those 60,000 part of the cost of economic freedom, just as many of the 35,000 may be part of the cost of the constitutional right ''to keep and bear arms''?