Congress is pressuring New York City to stop dumping its millions of tons of sewage sludge in the Atlantic, but the city says there's no way it can meet the deadlines and that fines won't do anyone any good.

Congress is wrangling over a deadline for ending ocean sludge-dumping and is prepared to assess heavy fines to make it stick. The Senate unanimously passed legislation Aug. 9 outlawing the dumping by January 1992, and a similar House bill would end it a year later.The Senate bill also would require the city to sign a compliance agreement within six months, but "you can't sign an agreement that you can't comply with," said Judy Chesser, director of New York City's Washington office.

In addition, she said of the Senate bill, "if you don't enter a compliance agreement within six months after enactment, you have to start paying - for New York City, $76 million to $152 million per year.

"That's just the fine," she said, not the cost of actually ending disposal in the ocean.

The city would need to construct at least one de-watering plant and several incinerators and would have to find landfill space in order to halt the dumping, she said. The city produces 3.8 million wet tons of sludge every year.

New York is one of nine communities that still dump sewage sludge at sea despite a 1977 amendment to the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act stating that such dumping was to end by Dec. 31, 1981. The other sludge dumpers are all in New York state and New Jersey, and together produce a total of 8 million tons of sludge a year.

The Environmental Protection Agency had planned to quit renewing sludge-dumping permits for these communities by 1982 until New York City went to court, arguing that the cost and environmental impact of land-based disposal made these alternatives worse than ocean dumping. A federal judge agreed.

However, EPA could still designate where the dumping could occur, so it moved the ocean waste dump site from 12 miles offshore to 106 miles out at sea, beyond the Continental Shelf. All dumping at the 12-mile site ended by Dec. 31, 1987.

After the court victory, New York City quit looking at land-based alternatives, said Jeffrey Sommer, first deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Conservation.

"We believed the move to the 106-mile site from the 12 would have eliminated the pressure," Sommer said. "We still believe the ocean is an environmentally sound method to discharge sludge."

Sommer also said he believes the public is confusing the sludge issue with the medical waste and untreated sewage that have closed many beaches in the Northeast this summer.

Sommer said that while politicians know the difference, they are not making distinctions between the two issues.