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Garbage on the beach

FOR many beachgoers this summer, a trip to the sea has pulled up short at water's edge - pollution has rendered their favorite swimming spot temporarily unfit for human contact. Medical debris has washed ashore along beaches in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Public health officials strongly suspect that the material was illegally dumped. In the Boston area, heavy rains overtaxed sewage treatment facilities, pushing untreated sewage into the ocean and prompting closure of several popular beaches. On the West Coast, San Francisco has closed beaches because sewage plants have broken down. Even in the Soviet Union, officials have been forced to close beaches in the Caspian and Black Seas because of sewage problems.

Clearly this nation's coastal waters are in deep trouble. The reason is not hard to understand. Some 70 percent of the US population lives within 50 miles of a coastline - 154 million people who generate household trash, sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial waste. In the process, people are destroying many of the economic activities and sullying the aesthetics that drew them to the coasts in the first place. In addition, measuring techniques have been consistently refined, enabling scientists to detect pollution in areas that five or 10 years ago may have been thought to have no problem.

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Reducing the amount of junk people generate, as well as finding a more intelligent mix of recycling and incineration, will shrink the amount of garbage and industrial waste fouling harbors, estuaries, and beaches. For the following categories of waste, some strategies include:

Garbage. It is currently illegal to dump garbage at sea, although allowance is made for garbage that may get blown off barges transferring trash from collection point to a landfill. Some people who own pleasure boats are as careless about pitching trash through a porthole as some drivers who toss litter out the car window. If someone can afford a boat, he can afford a trash can for the boat - and use it. To its credit, Pennsylvania last Thursday became the largest state with a mandatory recycling law. The program is expected to cut the state's volume of solid waste 25 percent by 1997. Other states should follow suit, especially coastal states. Some kinds of trash, such as the medical waste that washed ashore along several Northeast beaches, may require a cradle-to-grave reporting system similar to that used for hazardous waste, to help identify violators.

Sewage treatment. Plants must go beyond merely separating solid waste from liquid waste, and then flushing the liquid. They must also be designed to extract nutrients contained in the waste. Once pumped into a harbor or estuary, nutrient-laden waste contributes to algae blooms that reduce oxygen in the water, killing off fish and other marine life. In some areas nutrient removal must be done at the waste treatment plant; in others, nearby wetlands can be used as buffers to absorb nutrients before the waste is taken out to sea on the tide. In older metropolitan areas, where the storm drains and sewers are linked, either the systems must be decoupled or sewage-treatment capacity increased to handle the combined flow. Adequate amounts of money must be available for upkeep of sewage-treatment plants.

Industrial waste. While in some areas it is illegal to unload untreated industrial waste in the sewer system, such laws are neither universal nor uniformly enforced. Tougher pretreatment laws will not only reduce the outflow of waste, they will also likely encourage recycling industrial waste where possible.

Agricultural runoff. The pollutants are pesticides and nutrient-laden fertilizers. Reducing the amount of these pollutants entering coastal waters requires not only a change in farming practices in ways that minimize the use of pesticides and fertilizer. It also requires the preservation of wetlands, which can act as buffers to neutralize those remaining pollutants that run off from farmland.

The United States has made significant progress in cleaning its air and water. But the job is far from finished. It will take tens of billions of dollars to adopt the next tier of waste reduction efforts. The price tag will require federal, state, local, and private cooperation to cope with it.

The question is not whether, but how quickly, to address the problems. The next administration should give them a high priority.