For the past 12 years, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has had a program to control and clean up hazardous wastes. But a congressional study released this week says the EPA is going a rather poor job of it.

How much of the critical General Accounting Office report is election-year politics and how much is focusing on real failures of the EPA is open to debate. Yet there are causes for concern.The agency hardly seems to have acted swiftly or with deep concern for possible problems.

For example: The study notes that EPA is regulating 450 hazardous materials, but only five have been added to the list since 1980. In addition, the agency has failed to meet nearly 40 deadlines set by Congress on controlling various toxic wastes.

That seems to indicate a lack of priorities and a clear-cut approach to identifying and cleaning up wastes. In addition, the competence of at least some federal inspectors must be questioned.

Compliance inspections have been on the rise, but when GAO investigators went along on some of them, they found that inspectors missed almost as many violations as they cited.

To be fair, the problem is huge and the regulations are so complicated that they are often misunderstood. And the costs of cleanup are so heavy that many companies and local governments are slow to respond.

There are some 5,000 disposal and storage sites regulated by the EPA and as many as half of them may have problems with leakage. The EPA says that a full-scale cleanup program could take more than 35 years and cost more than $20 billion. That's in addition to $22 billion needed to take care of 2,500 abandoned dump sites under the present "Superfund" cleanup program.

It will be hard to find that kind of money in an era beset with enormous budget deficits and the need to reduce federal spending. But ignoring the problems could easily cost more than correcting them. And if there's anything the nation can't afford, it's the kind of watchdog that doesn't bark or bite.